Historic Northside

B.C.’s Historic Northside enthusiastic about school reopening as Fremont International Academy

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

A new magnet school in the Battle Creek’s Historic Northside Neighborhood is expected to attract students from throughout Calhoun County.

The Fremont International Academy, part of the Battle Creek Public Schools, is the first school in the county to offer an International Baccalaureate curriculum. It will be open for the 2019-2020 school year with 180 slots available for students in pre-Kindergarten through second grade.

The third, fourth and fifth grade will be added by one grade each year through 2022-23, bringing the total number of students to more than 300. So in 2020 the school will add third, then fourth the following year and fifth the next, says Brandon Phenix, principal of Fremont International Academy and Battle Creek Public Schools Elementary Magnet coordinator.

There will be two sections for each grade level. Pre-K classes will max out at 18 students per class, while there will be between 22 and 26 students per class in the upper-grade-levels.

“There will be one lead teacher per grade, similar to what other BCPS elementary schools have, along with additional literacy staff, and we will have our own Spanish teacher as well,” Phenix says.

Spanish will be the first language immersion opportunity offered at the International Baccalaureate school. Each student will receive 30 minutes of language instruction per school day, in addition to being given opportunities to explore other aspects of the culture through intentional efforts to incorporate it throughout the school.

As an example, Phenix says a mathematical story problem may include Spanish phrases or items commonly found in Hispanic culture. He says the school will be filled with words that are translated into other cultures.

The school closed in the summer of 2016 as part of a district reorganization plan necessitated by declining enrollment.Representatives with BCPS have been making significant outreach throughout the county since the application process for the IB school began shortly after the BCPS School Board voted in December 2018, to reopen the former Fremont Elementary School. The school closed in the summer of 2016 as part of a district reorganization plan necessitated by declining enrollment. At the time, the district was losing about 300 students per year, BCPS officials said. 

“In 2016 we were still in the early stages of rightsizing the district's finances, and we had to make some difficult decisions. Closing Fremont was one of the toughest moments we faced, but it was done so in order to provide us with the necessary resources to support our capacity at that time,” says Kim Carter, BCPS Superintendent.” 

“Now, thanks to support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, our continued, successful efforts to rightsize our district's finances and improving enrollment trends, we are thrilled to be able to reopen Fremont's doors to our community." 

The re-opening of the school was made possible because of a five-year $51 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to BCPS, which was announced in 2017 and a portion of which went into reopening Fremont. The grant funds are being used throughout the school district with the goal of ensuring that every Battle Creek student graduates and receives the preparation and support they need for college or a career. 

The grant supports opportunities in literacy, pre-K, new books and supplies, professional development for teachers, reduced class sizes, and investments in arts, music, and athletics.

“When the building closed in 2016 due to low enrollment, we recognized that it was a loss for the community,” Phenix says. “There was so much mourning over that loss. We were excited when that building was chosen for the IB school. We knew there would be a lot of enthusiasm.”

Phenix says part of the focus of this grant-funded transformation was to think strategically about what was being offered and what school leaders wanted to be able to provide throughout the district. Through this process, they identified the need for more language immersion.

“IB was a big focus for language instruction and understanding world cultures and what we’re doing as a district to diversify those offerings,” Phenix says.

Not long after the Feb. 26 start of the application process for the International Baccalaureate school began, Nathan Grajek, a resident of the neighborhood, which is part of Neighborhood Planning Council 4, and his wife put in an application for their oldest son who will enter kindergarten this fall.

“He’d be going to Post-Franklin Elementary School, and we still would be excited if he went there, but this is a pretty unique opportunity and to get more resources and an international education focus on Spanish is pretty cool,” says Grajek, who is also a former Battle Creek Public Schools school board trustee.

Phenix says one of his goals is to give every student who matriculates in fifth grade the opportunity to take an exam for Spanish 1 in high school so that they can start at a higher level.

While the language and culture immersion will be the focus, students will still be taught the same curriculum as their counterparts attending the school district’s other elementary schools, and take the same standardized tests.

“Adopting the IB framework is really what is the most distinguishing piece as the school will still have to meet the same requirements,” Phenix says. “IB is the teacher-created units on top of the daily lessons.”

Spanish will be the first language immersion opportunity offered at the International Baccalaureate school.International Baccalaureate has interdisciplinary themes and guiding questions to pull together subject areas, he says. “One of the questions is 'what is my place in time?' which is meant to get kids to think about where do I live in my community and what’s happening and how does that compare with kids in other areas of the country or the world?” Phenix says. “For us, it’s how are we tying that same question into today’s math lessons or in social studies with the countries we’re learning about.”

In addition to the regular classroom learning, there will be extracurriculars, that could include guest speakers who will provide further immersion opportunities for students.

“The challenge we set for ourselves is to try and find ways to make this cultural exploration that our kids are doing as immersive as possible,” Phenix says. “One of the questions a lot of parents have asked is if Spanish and Latin American countries are the only cultures we’ll be studying. I tell them absolutely not. There’s going to be lots of opportunities to explore other cultures.”

Students will be selected to attend the school based on a lottery system after the application process closes on April 5. “There’s no testing or teacher recommendation, you just put your name in,” Grajek says.

Phenix says a certain number of slots are being set aside for the children of BCPS employees as a way for the school system to show its appreciation. 

“We’re finding ways to honor our strong, committed staff at BCPS by offering a staff incentive and giving an early application process for a limited number of seats,” Phenix says.

Although Fremont International Academy is open to any student, officials with BCPS have focused their efforts within Calhoun County. They’ve hosted between eight and 10 community events designed to inform residents about these new opportunities.

Phenix says this outreach has included conversations with members of the city’s Latinx and Burmese communities.

“We are trying to be strategically diverse in where we’re going and who we’re talking to,” Phenix says. “There’s lots of diversity and that’s a big thing that we’re leveraging. Our first priority is to make sure we’re offering as many different opportunities as possible to service kids who are in-district. 

"Because the school itself is non-boundary, students can come from anywhere. Our priority has been kids who live in the school district and getting them back.”

Grajek cites School of Choice and declining population as among the reasons for the declining enrollment experienced by BCPS. He says factors such as these had an adverse and disproportionate impact on inner city schools that were perceived by families to be unsafe which led to “white flight.”

“If families have the means, they can send their kids to Lakeview, Pennfield, or Harper Creek schools,” Grajek says.

Because students attending the IB school will be coming from varied socioeconomic backgrounds, Phenix says students at Freemont International Academy will wear uniforms.  He says this will provide them with a sense of community and prestige, while also offering some practicality. 

Nate Hunt, BCPS Communications Manager, says the opportunities presented through the WKKF grant, such as the Fremont International Academy, will bring students back to the district.

Grajek agrees, especially with the inclusion of an IB school.

“I want my kids to have an international world view and look outside of their city, state, and neighborhood,” he says. “I want to encourage my kids to think locally and act globally. It will make them good people and critical thinkers. Having that international lens is really important.

“My hope is that some families who have choiced-out (of BCPS), who would have otherwise stayed, can go there, and families outside of the district will choice-in,” he says. “People in the Historic Northside Neighborhood consider that school as a really important center for the community.”

Photos by John Grap of John Grap Photography. His work is featured here.

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.