The East Lansing Public Schools Board of Education met Monday evening, and for the first time since March 2020, the public was allowed to attend in-person. Several members of the public did, as the Board heard comment on the renaming of Pinecrest Elementary School in honor of Dr. Robert L. Green and on Covid safety protocols for the upcoming school year.
ELi received word on Sunday afternoon that Superintendent Dori Leyko had notified families with children enrolled in ELPS that, given the end of the state of emergency, the public would be able to attend the meeting in-person. Also, given the short notice, the Board also permitted virtual public comment via Zoom on Monday. Future Board meetings – beginning with the Aug. 9, 2021, meeting – are expected to be held only in-person.
In addition to holding a public hearing on the renaming of Pinecrest, the Board also hired Klaudia Burton, an East Lansing High School science teacher, to serve as the district’s first Director of Equity and Social Justice.
Constituents debated whether Pinecrest Elementary School should be renamed in honor of civil rights activist Robert L. Green.
The debate followed the School Board hearing a presentation from the Robert L. Green Commission at its June 28 meeting that is working to chronicle the local and regional history of civil rights, particularly as related to civil rights icon Robert L. Green. The Board announced at that meeting that it would hold two public hearings on the renaming – at its July 26 and Aug. 9 meetings. The Board is expected to vote on the issue at the Aug. 9 meeting.
As ELi reported in April 2021, Green was denied the chance to buy a home in the Glencairn neighborhood and then lodged a complaint with the Federal Housing Administration in Grand Rapids. While an MSU faculty member, he became one of the first African Americans to buy a home in East Lansing when he purchased a house in the Northern Meadows neighborhood. His children were among the first Black students in the district.
The debate at this week’s meeting centered on whether Green had made significant local contributions to the Pinecrest neighborhood. While all who weighed in acknowledged that Green’s life and accomplishments are worthy of praise, some argued that he should be honored in a different way.
Speaking first during the in-person public comment period, Douglas Nordhaus of the Pinecrest Neighborhood said he is unaware of anything that Green had done for the area and therefore renaming the school would be inappropriate. He suggested instead planting near Pinecrest Elementary a memorial tree – either a white birch or black walnut – that the Pinecrest Neighborhood Association would pay for.
Colleen Tupper agreed with Nordhaus’ sentiment, calling for an alternative way to remember Green, such as renaming a park or trail or planting a tree. She told the trustees that she “didn’t understand the connection” between Green and Pinecrest since Green seemed to have stronger connections to the MSU community. Tupper stated that elementary school names should be tied to the neighborhoods that they serve but agreed that the community should encounter Green’s name and learn about his work.
Others argued that renaming Pinecrest after Green was appropriate given his actions and accomplishments. In opening comments for the public hearing, Trustee Kath Edsall pointed to Green’s work as a civil rights leader in Michigan and argued that renaming a school in particular after Green was appropriate given “his work in area of educational equity.”
Others also argued that Green’s contribution to the community was integrating both the Pinecrest neighborhood and having his children integrate the school, among other things. Adam DeLay and East Lansing Council member Ron Bacon, who both served on the Dr. Green Commission and who are both running for election to City Council, stated that renaming Pinecrest will help East Lansing tell a more accurate history. DeLay said that the City’s history should include the history of redlining and restrictive covenants, and Bacon stated that Green’s story would help the community understand how its past involved both racial discrimination and embracing progressive ideals.
Some, including Green’s eldest son, Vince Green, called in to highlight the connections Green had to the community. Vince Green pointed to himself as evidence since his father sent his children to Pinecrest, and they are believed to be among the first African-American students to have attended there.
Nichole Biber, the librarian at Pinecrest Elementary, and Cheryl Dudley also pointed out in their comments that at least one of Green’s relatives is currently enrolled in Pinecrest. Dudley further spoke about her experience as one of the few Black students at ELPS in the 1970s.
Abbie Tykocki, the President of the Pinecrest Neighborhood Association, opened her comments by echoing Biber. She also noted that Pinecrest Elementary serves more neighborhoods than just Pinecrest, arguing against keeping elementary school names tied to the neighborhoods.
During public comment, the conversation also turned to Covid-19 safety protocols for the upcoming school year.
Parents and students alike advocated for stricter protocols after Leyko announced in an email that universal masking will be required for grades K-6 (since children under 12 cannot currently be vaccinated) and optional in grades 7-12. Unvaccinated students in upper grades will not be required to mask, to avoid embarrassing them.
Patrick Levine Rose, a parent of an East Lansing high schooler, stated that embarrassment could be avoided by asking all students to mask regardless of vaccination status. He pointed to the rise of the Delta variant across the country and advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services that recommends universal masking in grades K-12.
Two high school students also commented, calling for universal masking. One, Marie Adele Grosso, said she understood Leyko’s decision to review vaccination levels and Covid rates in August before making a decision, but she expressed concern, especially for the middle school population, in which not all students will have the same masking guidelines or access to the vaccine.
For its part, the district is holding a vaccine clinic on Aug. 9 in conjunction with the Ingham County Health Department. The Covid-19 vaccine will be available along with other childhood vaccines. Families will receive notice and are encouraged to make appointments instead of just walking-in. The event is open to the entire community.
In response to a question about ventilation, the Board pointed out during Board discussion that the elementary schools all have state-of-the-art ventilation systems and the middle and high school have received some upgrades, including windows that can be opened.
The Board will meet again on Monday, Aug. 9, starting at 7 p.m., inside East Lansing High School. Public comment will be restricted to those attending in person.