This High School Uses Community Partnerships to Bring History to Life

This High School Uses Community Partnerships to Bring History to Life

Attyn, a 10th grader, always thought it was “normal” that his neighborhood in Grand Rapids, Mich., wasn’t quite as safe and well-kept as other parts of town. He took it for granted that he felt welcome in some neighborhoods, and not others.

But then he took a course at his high school that opened his eyes to local history, to the legacy of racist housing policies, to his own family’s story, and to the forces that make Grand Rapids the dynamic city it is today.

“This class made me realize how red-lining created these barriers in my neighborhood. … Honestly, it was really shocking,” Attyn said. “As a Black person in America, learning these things is really helpful. And there’s so much yet to be unpacked.”

Attyn is a student at Grand Rapids Public Museum High School, an XQ school in Grand Rapids, MI, and the course was a part of the school’s unique approach to community engagement. You see, at GRPMS community partnerships are ingrained in the school’s mission and culture. Partnerships like the one Attyn participated in ignite students’ passions, offer glimpses into college and career options, accelerate learning, help students enhance their resumes, and build social capital. 

All XQ schools use partnerships as a way to bring learning to life, extending education beyond the walls of the classroom, and into the community. In fact, well-planned community partnerships are a part of XQ’s Design Principles, guiding pillars for schools as they rethink how high schools can better prepare students for all the future has to offer.  In these well-planned partnerships, students can see, hear, and feel the relevance of their classroom lessons in the “real world.” By engaging with partners, students gain a better understanding of their communities, their cities, and the world beyond the local community.

Schools With Community Partnerships at the Center

At GRPMS, school builders placed community partnerships at the center of the school from Day One. The school was conceived to sit inside a museum in downtown Grand Rapids. The location allows the school to draw on local businesses, community groups, government agencies, two universities, and the myriad of resources at the museum to create a model of project-based and place-based learning for its diverse student body. On any given day, students are working with the local merchant association to beautify the neighborhood, helping museum staff to archive some of the museum’s 250,000 artifacts, or working at local homeless shelters on art projects focusing on poverty and equity.  


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“These partnerships empower our students to be change-makers in their communities, no matter where they go,” said Chris Hanks, GRPMS’s principal.  “Our scholars bring their own expertise to these partnerships, but they’re also learning important things like collaboration, teamwork, and communication skills.” 

One of the more dynamic partnerships at GRPMS is with The Diatribe, a local arts nonprofit that provides young people in the Grand Rapids area with curriculum and classes blending poetry and other forms of creative writing with social justice topics, such as fair housing and racial equity.

As part of the partnership, 10th graders from Grand Rapids take a nine-week course led by Diatribe artists, focusing on the history of housing inequality in Grand Rapids. They learn about red-lining—the practice of excluding certain groups such as Black people from certain neighborhoods—and its long-term negative impact on residents, Grand Rapids’ communities, and the entire city. 

Students tour various neighborhoods, explore the city’s gorgeous, dynamic murals, and learn about how discriminatory housing practices have shaped the city. But the course is more than just lessons and field trips. Students discuss what they’re learning and grapple with their reactions to learning through poetry, creative writing, and spoken word. They finish their learning journey by delivering presentations to their classmates.

The partnership with The Diatribe fits closely with courses GRPMS students take that survey Black history, slavery, Reconstruction, the Great Migration, and the Civil Rights Movement, among other topics. The courses aim to blend history with social justice and English language arts in a way that makes the past feel relevant to students’ lives. 

“These lessons they’re learning in the classroom are more tangible when scholars can connect these stories to the neighborhoods and cities they live in,” Hanks said. “It localizes the curriculum.”

Building 21st Century Learners Through Community Partnerships

Courses such as those offered by The Diatribe are a perfect example of how community partnerships dovetail with XQ Learner Outcomes. Original thinking, collaboration, foundational knowledge, and a lifelong love of learning—cornerstones of XQ’s learner philosophy—are all part of students’ experience in a well-planned school-community partnership. 

Those partnerships don’t just benefit students. By giving students an engaging, meaningful education experience, partners create a positive feedback loop in the community. They’re helping educate the next generation of leaders and citizens who understand the value of community engagement and giving back, ultimately enriching the entire city.

Students can provide another important asset to partners: a fresh perspective on old problems. Their energy, creativity, compassion, and enthusiasm can shed new light on complex issues—such as homelessness or inequality—that have bedeviled previous generations. Partnerships can help students jumpstart problem-solving for the 21st century.      

Raising Awareness and Opening Doors 

GRPMS 10th grader Adaga’s family is from Ethiopia, but she found The Diatribe class relevant because it opened her eyes to the urban history of Grand Rapids and its spatial development. For her presentation, she focused on how unfair housing practices continue to impact women. 

As part of the project, she and her classmates created a plan to help find homes for women in Grand Rapids experiencing homelessness. The project raised her awareness of how low-income women continue to struggle for basic needs such as housing and inspired her to take action to help women in her community. 

“It was sad. There are women who struggle with finding a place to stay,” Adaga said.

Poetry in Motion

Attyn said the project shed light on the city his family has lived in for generations. Originally from Mississippi, his relatives were part of the Great Migration to northern cities like Grand Rapids in search of better opportunities.

But Grand Rapids, like many other cities, had housing policies that limited where Black families could live. Even now, decades after the federal and state governments overturned those policies,  Attyn feels like the legacy of racism still affects him and his family.

Writing poetry and stories with teachers from The Diatribe helped him understand his feelings and make sense of the world in which he grew up. These projects also allowed him to hone his literary and creative skills, tapping into his passion for self-expression. Although he’s not sure yet what career he’ll choose, he now knows it will include writing and social justice.

“Writing gives you a way to process what you’re learning, make connections, think things through,” he said. 

Turning Racist Memorabilia into Hands-On Learning

Community partnerships can enhance almost any academic subject. For the next outside-the-classroom endeavor, GRPMS is partnering with the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich. Building on their experience at the museum that shares their campus, GRPMS 11th graders will help archive and create a curriculum based on the Jim Crow museum’s largest-in-the-nation collection of racist artifacts.

The project will dovetail with a class they’ll be taking called Society and Self, which blends civics and English language arts. Students will sharpen their literacy skills, expand on their archiving knowledge, and gain a deeper understanding of the racism that was once pervasive in American culture.

In addition, the students will tour the 935-acre campus, learning about the myriad career and educational pathways available just an hour north of Grand Rapids.

The Power of an Authentic Audience

Hanks urges all schools to forge partnerships with outside organizations to enhance the learning experience for students. Students gain invaluable experience by working side-by-side with adults in the community, learning how their classroom lessons apply to the world beyond the campus boundaries, and “developing a sense of ownership and responsibility for their work,” Hanks explained.

“To present their work to an authentic audience gives it credibility and meaning,” Hanks said. “That can be very powerful.”

Hanks said he feels fortunate that the Grand Rapids area has a plethora of community organizations, museums, businesses, and universities that are willing to partner with schools. But all schools, no matter where they’re located, can create similar partnerships, he noted.

“We have a school in a museum, and I understand that not everyone has that opportunity,” he said. “But virtually every school has community institutions that are nearby and willing to collaborate. The opportunity is there for every school.”

XQ encourages all schools to partner with local nonprofits, government agencies, arts groups, businesses, universities, and other organizations that can bring a new dimension to classroom learning and ultimately change students’ lives. 

Expanding school beyond the four walls of the classroom makes academic lessons come alive, and can help launch students on trajectories they never dreamed of. A good school-community partnership shows that learning can happen anywhere.

Read more:

XQ Design Principle: Community Partnerships

5 Community Partnerships in Action

5 Ways to Engage Community Partners