What ever happened following that open letter from the ELHS newspaper? And will Pinecrest be renamed?
Back on May 4 of this year, the editorial staff of Portrait, East Lansing High School’s student newspaper, issued an open letter calling for a town hall meeting to be held on the week of May 30. The idea was to gather publicly with members of the district and high school administrative teams to discuss a host of issues, many of which related to equity and social justice.
The town hall never happened, and now ELi has learned from talking with district administrators and students that it is unclear if the type of town hall imagined by the Portrait staff ever will. But a group of administrators and members of the Portrait team did hold a series of meeting in late May and early June to discuss the issues in the open letter and to come up with plans for actions.
Issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion remain a topic of discussion at School Board, too. At its June 28 meeting, the Board heard a presentation about renaming Pinecrest Elementary after a local civil rights leader. The School Board will be holding two public hearings on the renaming – at its July 26 and Aug. 9 meetings, with a vote possible on Aug. 9.
At the June 28 meeting, the Board also heard a presentation from the district’s journalism program, which has a year-round connection with ELi. Read on for details on all of this news.
How and why was the Portrait open letter written in the first place?
Through interviews, ELi has learned that the Portrait team first discussed the idea of an open letter after Chelsea Wade, a parent of a child at MacDonald Middle School, spoke during public comment at the April 12 School Board meeting about a problematic assignment given to students about slavery.
Marie Adele Grosso, who is on Portrait’s staff and who serves as a student representative to the School Board, began recording Wade’s comments as she listened to the meeting.
The recording was circulated among the Portrait team. Everyone was asked to listen. According to Ixchel Ceballos, then Portrait’s Editor-in-Chief, the news team spent the entire hour discussing the clip, and that’s when the team came up with the idea of an open letter.
Adan Tomas Quan, one of Portrait’s incoming Editors-in-Chief, told ELi that the Portrait board named other problems that they had seen at ELHS, and Ceballos used those to compose a written list. (Disclaimer: Quan is a reporter for ELi.)
Quan believes that the district could be doing more to make its curriculum more inclusive, saying things are in a “spot that’s not bad but not good enough.” He sees the high school curriculum as more inclusive than the middle school’s in terms of authors whose works are assigned and thinks the district should consider giving students diversity, equity, and inclusion training.
Grosso told ELi that even prior to Wade’s comments, she and her classmates had seen inconsistencies in the way that white students and students of color were treated, pointing particularly to guidance received on educational pursuits and disability accommodations.
The idea of the letter, according to Grosso, was to address systemic issues related to communication and equity instead of naming specific examples, as the latter might make the Board and administrators feel attacked.
Ceballos penned the letter based on the list compiled by the group and then ran it by the Portrait board and staff before it was published and shared on social media.
What response did the letter get?
Ceballos told ELi that some alumni signed on, expressing concerns that problems that existed while they attended ELPS had not been fixed. Grosso also pointed out that some teachers gave “partial signatures,” endorsing the sentiment while stopping short of supporting every aspect.
Superintendent Dori Leyko told ELi that she learned of the letter on May 5, when ELHS Principal Andy Wells forwarded it her. School Board President Terah Chambers learned about the letter on social media but did not see that it was written by Portrait.
Both Leyko and Chambers were at the May 10 School Board meeting where Ceballos introduced the letter. Chambers asked Ceballos to send a link of the letter to the School Board trustees, but the following day, an administrator sent the letter along.
Superintendent Leyko, ELHS Principal Wells, Curriculum Director Glenn Mitcham, and several students on the Portrait team met on May 20, to discuss the letter. Grosso told ELi that the administration supposedly asked why Portrait wrote an open letter instead of going directly to the administrators. According to Grosso, an open letter showed community support for the Portrait team’s requests.
The May 20 meeting focused on next steps for addressing concerns. Leyko told ELi that the group “discussed the goals of the town hall and options for best meeting these goals. We talked about holding smaller targeted meetings on the article’s topics and inviting adults who are best connected to these topics.”
Following that meeting, Ceballos met one-on-one with Board President Chambers on May 27, and then Ceballos met again with Chambers, Leyko, Wells, and Mitcham to decide some next steps.
So what are those next steps?
Conversations will most likely continue in the fall, and it is possible that smaller, more targeted town halls will be held then and might include “adults who are best connected to [the specific] topics” discussed.
But a consensus has been reached that new positions or means of communication do not need to be created. Instead, work will focus on improving existing methods of communication.
Leyko told ELi that plans “include an opportunity for students to provide input as return-to-school plans are developed for our fall return” and “a regular column in the Portrait” by students to keep their peers informed about administrative actions and increase communication.
Chambers wrote, “I think we have an opportunity to reimagine what the role of the student representative to the Board is and how they can act as a conduit between administration and students.”
Mitcham also pointed out that the School Board Trustee Chris Martin, who chairs the Academic and Technology subcommittee, has already sought out assistance in finding student representatives to join the committee, which is tasked with curriculum review. Chambers said the Policy subcommittee, which she chairs and which is working on a racial equity statement, is also planning to welcome student representatives
Ceballos also noted that meetings have included discussions on student-led professional development for ELPS staff and the possibility of administrators attending clubs when invited.
There was also an understanding that certain issues may be better handled by counselors and at the building-administrative level.
Ceballos told ELi that while the Portrait staff initiated the conversation on making a more inclusive and student-centered district, the plan is for other students to get involved.
Will Pinecrest be renamed?
At the School Board meeting on June 28, the Board heard a presentation from the Robert L. Green Commission that is working to chronicle the local and regional history of civil rights, particularly as related to civil rights icon Robert L. Green. The presentation was given as the Board considers renaming Pinecrest Elementary after Green.
As ELi reported in April 2021, Green was denied the chance to buy a home in the Glencairn neighborhood and then made an appeal to the Federal Housing Administration in Grand Rapids. 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 ad-hoc commission has secured a promise of a State Historic Marker to be placed in City-owned land across the street from Green’s former home on Bessemaur Drive. The commission has described that house as having functioned as “a war room” for tackling civil rights issues.
At the June 28 meeting, Board members supported the idea of renaming the school, and trustee Elizabeth Lyons emphasized that the school cannot be renamed without sharing the local history of civil rights advancement within the school, district, and wider community. Trustee Kath Edsall advocated for having a permanent installation about Green’s life and work in the school.
The School Board will hold two public hearings on the renaming – at its July 26 and Aug. 9 meetings. The Board is expected to vote at the latter meeting.
What else is next for the district and for Portrait?
At the June 28 meeting, Portrait advisor Cody Harrell provided the Board with a five-year review of the district’s journalism program, highlighting numerous awards the staff has received and laying out plans for the future. (Disclosure: Harrell is ELi’s Director of Summer Youth Journalism.)
During his presentation, Harrell addressed a question from Trustee Kath Edsall about whether Portrait and Ceniad, the Yearbook, were incorporating diverse voices.
According to Harrell, diversity is taken into account when recruiting staff and publishing articles. If a specific identity is missing, Harrell tries to reach out to club leaders, and his staff considers the question of whether the stories about students of color are the ones students of color want told.
Moving forward, Harrell plans for more outreach to the middle school to get students interested in journalism earlier. At the Board meeting, he spoke to the importance of local partnerships, including with ELi.
Editor’s note: ELi is currently fundraising to support our youth journalism programming, and we have matching funds to double your gift through July 4. Many ELHS students participate in our Summer Youth Journalism Program. We can double your gift today when you donate here!