Diversity, over test scores, attracts parents to Lansing schools

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When it comes to choosing the right school, parents investigate many statistics. Some focus on ACT and SAT scores. Others, such as Missy Lilje, Lansing School District Board of Education trustee and mother of students in the Lansing district, the focus fell on diversity and community. Knowing first-hand the effects of attending a school that lacked diversity, she saw the advantage in immersing her children in a diverse environment, like Lansing, early.

Photo courtesy of MSU College of Arts and Letters Department of Theatre

Photo courtesy of Michigan State University's College of Arts and Letters: Department of Theatre

Missy Lilje, Lansing Board of Education trustee and parent of two. Photo courtesy of MSU College of Arts and Letters Department of Theatre.

“I mean, where I came from, everyone’s families pretty much made the same amount of money. Everyone was white, everyone had the same experience, you know,” said Lilje, who is Caucasian. “So, to go out into the real world and be surrounded by people who maybe had some different challenges and different struggles, for a myriad of reasons, I felt like, ‘wow, my quote unquote, amazing, great school that’s so highly ranked, actually did me a disservice.”‘

Lilje has two children: Lucy, a 2nd grader, and Erik, a 1st grader. Both attend Post Oak Academy in Lansing. When Lilje was deciding on a district for her children, there was no question. It was Lansing.

Lilje said that looking at test scores isn’t where decision-making should end. Lansing district students represent more than 70 countries, according to the district. Lilje said that while those students might hurt overall test scores, she countered,“but how much do my kids benefit from knowing them?” Lilje aimed to give her children the opportunity to step into the real world the moment they stepped out of the school doors.

They’re going to interact with people that have a whole lot of experiences, so that when they go into the world, they won’t waste their time like I did just trying to cope,” she said. “They’ll be ready to just go and make their life.”

Lilje said her children are more equipped for the real world now, in elementary school, than she was at 18. The conversations that she was having in college, Lucy and Erik are engaging in now with friends in the Lansing schools. Not only are they surrounded by students who are diverse racially, but also in terms of socioeconomic status and children for whom English is a second language. Being surrounded by individuals from all walks of life, she watches Lucy and Eric interact fearlessly with the world.

“I see them now– you know, when they’re at a playground, or at a park or when we were just at Disney for spring break – I see them have no problem approaching kids in a wheelchair, or kids who are obviously on the autism spectrum, or kids who have a different skin color or kids who are speaking another language. They’re not fazed. They don’t have that moment of like, ‘Oh, OK, how do I approach this person?'” — Missy Lilje, parent of two Lansing School District students.

According to a 2017-2018 Racial Census Report from the Michigan Department of Education, 75 percent of the Lansing district’s students are minorities. The largest racial groups in the district are African American, which makes up 39.26 percent of the population, Caucasian, which accounts for 25 percent of the population, and Hispanics, who make up 19.41 percent.

Graphic created by Sydney Naseef from Michigan Department of Education information

Diversity in the Lansing School District in the 2017-2018 school year

With an enrollment of 10,806 students, the majority being minorities, it is evident that diversity plays a major role in Lansing schools.

Steven Purchase, leader of the Parent Community Advisory Committee, said that when he and his wife explored living in Ingham County, a key consideration was the school district. Purchase, also Caucasian, said, while every school has its challenges, he saw in Lansing the strength in diversity and community.

Steven Purchase, Lansing student parent and leader of the Parent Community Advisory Council

Purchase said his son “would be exposed to people from all different walks of life, and that was important to us, too. You don’t always get that at suburban districts. Seeing, you know, the school leadership, and the energy and the Lansing Promise — more than just even the college tuition that it can help pay for, but the fact that the community is buying into the district. There’s the energy from the business community, and from the parents, and from the city and from all of these different stakeholders that are buying into and investing in this school district—that all matters.”

Purchase wasn’t the only one who felt Lansing’s sense of community. Angela Morris, a kindergarten teacher who has been working in the district for more than a decade, grew up in Lansing. Morris said that when she was working for her degree at Michigan State University, they asked her to do an internship at a school in a different district, and she declined. She felt that she was where she belonged. Although she is Caucasian, her experience made her feel resonance with her students’ struggles. She recognizes that while these issues might be less common in another district, they bring something special to her role as a teacher.

“I’m in a school where the kids don’t have shoes that fit,” Morris said. “So, you know, it’s something that I can empathize with because I grew up in Lansing. I can relate to the kids, so I take it very personally. I’m a huge advocate for the community. Like, it takes a community to raise a kid.”

Lilje said that when current Superintendent Yvonne Caamal Canul came to the district, she had only 82 days before the state emergency manager was going to take the district over. Now, a few years later, Lansing is rapidly working to generate new programs, organizations and schools that educate in diverse realms. Parents in Lansing might be working two or three jobs, according to Morris, but that shouldn’t hurt their children’s chances to learn. It takes a community.

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