District Focus: GRPS

Grand Rapids Public Schools and Kentwood Public Schools are the 1st and 3rd largest districts in the greater Grand Rapids area, therefore the two serve a huge number of the community’s school-age population, including refugees. Let’s look at what the enrollment process looks like in more detail for GRPS and how the staff at the Refugee Education Center work with teachers and administrators on the task of integration.

First, I will be using the acronyms ‘NS’ for Neighborhood School and ‘CC’ for Cultural Center. A Neighborhood School refers to the school that is in closest geographic proximity to a refugee students’ home. A Cultural Center refers to the nearest school that offers ESL services. You can probably anticipate the challenges that occur when the NS and CC are not the same school…So let’s begin!

Grand Rapids Public Schools


Once the enrollment coordinators at the Refugee Education Center receive a client’s referral from the resettlement agency, which of course includes their new home address, the coordinators figure out the student’s NS and CC. As I mentioned, the NS and CC are often not the same school. For example, a refugee student might conveniently live 1 block from an elementary school, making that their neighborhood school, but that school does not offer English language support services, so the nearest cultural center, or elementary school offering English language support services, is 8 blocks away. Transportation therefore becomes an issue to consider. For elementary students in GRPS, the radius for those required to walk to school is 1 mile. For middle school it’s 1.5 miles. Students living within those bounds will not have access to bussing services. This poses a challenge for many parents & children, especially those coming from a different country, culture, and background. Navigating to a foreign school in a foreign city in a foreign country can understandably be a source of anxiety, no? Someone must first show parents & children the route to school and then they must be trusting enough to take it or send their children on it alone if parents work in the morning or when school gets out. As for students who are outside those 1 and 1.5 mile bounds, because GRPS has outsourced their bussing services to Dean Transportation, another link in the chain is added when it comes to communication and coordination of even a single student’s bussing services. Unfortunately, that’s not the only issue. Many of GRPS’ cultural centers are already overflowing with students in need of ESL support so often there simply isn’t room for incoming refugee students. My question to this end is, what can be done to establish ESL services in some of these NS’ to turn them into CCs?

A recent change in GRPS’ enrollment policy is having both positive and negative effects on students, particularly refugees. Bi-monthly enrollment dates have been established and centralized at Union High School. While it may provide organization for some parents and students, for recently resettled refugee students it can be yet another barrier and source of “wait time” to becoming enrolled. Perhaps, for example, a refugee student has a doctor’s appointment for his or her immunizations on the day of enrollment – well, wait until the next enrollment day in 2 weeks. Here’s a huge one: Interpreters. Requests for interpreters must be placed 2 weeks ahead of time. If an interpreter is requested for May Enrollment Day 1, then something comes up on that day (like a doctor’s appointment, miscommunication between case worker and family, or no available transportation for the students) then you start the process over. The flexibility of enrollment on a rolling basis is nice when considering these factors. Further, each student must take a diagnostic English Language Learner test. These tests require funding, so what if there isn’t enough funding to provide as many ELL tests as are needed on May Enrollment Day 1? These are all issues that can occur when coordinating the enrollment of one student in one refugee family. If you recall the numbers of incoming refugees from my resettlement posts, you know that resettlement agencies and the REC were firing on all cylinders this Fall to coordinate enrollment for tons of students & families, now with a bit of pressure to make a bi-monthly deadline.

I hope it did not sound too much like I was bashing the process, as I am always in appreciative awe of the people who make this happen. I seek only and humbly to identify where improvements could be made, in the name of better serving our refugees.

The next post will be a district focus on Kentwood Public Schools and where the two districts differ. Check back for that posting! Thanks for reading!



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