GRPS: Deportation fears affecting attendance

Count Day showed 115 fewer students in West Michigan's largest school district

Cesar E. Chavez Elementary School
Cesar E. Chavez Elementary School in Grand Rapids. (Oct. 10, 2017)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Grand Rapids Public Schools says attendance numbers are down, and officials say heightened fear of deportation is one of the main reasons.

The official County Day last week showed there were 115 fewer students in GRPS, the district said.

While some schools are seeing their numbers improve, the district says schools like Cesar E. Chavez Elementary, which is in a predominantly Latino neighborhood, are seeing a dramatic drop.

“Even though I know the school is a safe place, it is a very safe place for the parents, there’s still that back of their minds that they’re afraid of that happening to their children,” Rocio Rodriguez, whose son attends Cesar Chavez, said of many Latino parents. “Just by even a car that looks different, the parents are getting really afraid of that.”

Standing in her 10-year-old son’s fifth grade classroom, Rodriguez said the fear of deportation has some parents keeping their kids out school.

“They (children) hear what their parents are speaking, so if their parents are scared, they’re going to be scared for their parents. They don’t know when they come home if their parents are still going to be there,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez, who was born in the United States, isn’t worried about deportation or the safety of her son. But she knows many families who are scared to even talk to district officials who are reaching out, hoping to help get the kids back in school.

“You have those that are afraid to leave their homes,” GRPS spokesman John Helmholdt said. “We have been to a home where you knock on the door and you can hear them running out the back.”

The district says the attendance has dropped so dramatically in some schools that they’re down an entire class size.

Figures show the most significant declines at:

  • Cesar Chavez, which counted 41 fewer students than expected;
  • Buchanan Elementary, which had 28 fewer students;
  • Brookside Elementary, where there were 22 fewer students;
  • Burton Elementary and Middle School, which saw a total of 22 fewer students than projected.

All of those schools are in predominantly Hispanic and Latino neighborhoods.

“You have the immigration fears and realities that include families that may have had a family member who was deported and the entire family left,” Helmholdt said.

Aimee Garcia, the principal of Cesar Chavez, said that about 80 percent of the student population is Hispanic.

“We have families that are very concerned about letting their children go on field trips because once they leave the city or the community, they’re worried what if something happens, what if immigration gets involved,” she said.

“A lot of our families in the past just kind of moved around within the city, but we’ve seen this year a lot more leaving the country, a couple leaving the state and then leaving the city,” she continued.

The district is now partnering with urban outreach organization LINC UP to canvas neighborhoods and assure families that their kids are OK at school.

“The families know who we are, they know that we are safe people to talk to, but sometimes that’s just not enough,” LINC community liaison Javier Cervantes said. “We try to be out there as much as we can just to make sure that they are able to talk to us if they do have any questions or if there’s any fear.”

The unfortunate reality, he said, is that the kids who are pulled from school aren’t getting any kind of home school or other education. But he noted the first priority for families is often keeping everyone safe and together.

Helmholdt said the district has held several information nights for families to understand the immigration policies and their rights.

Officials noted another cause for the drop in attendance may be a lack of affordable housing.

“As a district, we want to stand tall and proud and be vocal and that’s why we’ve been as outspoken with this,” Helmholdt said. “We want to be a resource, we want to be there and advocate for our families and we want to work with the mayor and the city commission on affordable housing issues. They have said it’s a top priority and we know they’re developing policy recommendations. We commend them for that.”

GRPS is projecting $1.2 million in budget reductions as a result of the Count Day numbers.

However, Helmholdt noted that in a district of 17,000 students, 115 fewer is not much of a decline.

“For Grand Rapids Public Schools, last year was the first year in 20 years we had an enrollment increase, which is huge for a large urban district. The vast majority across this country have seen declining enrollment for years, if not decades,” he said. “It was a really big deal for us to grow again. And we were projecting to grow again this year and then we had our Count Day last week and we had a few surprises.”