Battle Creek

Bond vote put forward after students and parents ask Battle Creek Schools to boost arts experiencesNorthwestern Middle School and Springfield Middle School renovations proposed

Voters will decide Nov. 2 on a  $44.8 million bond proposal by the Battle Creek Public Schools.
Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

If voters approve a $44.8 million bond proposal by the Battle Creek Public Schools on Nov. 2 Central High School senior Hannah Nichols does not stand to benefit directly. 

But that's not stopping the music student, a member of the school's marching and concert bands, from throwing her support behind the passage of the bond request that would transform Northwestern Middle School, into an immersive visual and performing arts academy. She knows firsthand the benefits of an arts education.

The renovations to be paid for by the bond are part of a 5-year district transformation plan that began in 2017 when BCPS received a $51 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. However, monies from that grant cannot be used for construction.

Input from students like Hannah, BCPS parents, and other community residents went into a plan to for a  $32.4 million transformation of  Northwestern Middle School into an arts academy for students in grades K-8. The school currently serves students in grades 6-8. 

The remainder of the bond revenues – about $12.4 million – will be used to cover the cost of renovations to Springfield Middle School, also serving students in grades 6-8, as it becomes a service-learning school with volunteer work and community involvement built into the curriculum. Funds for the two projects would be raised by a 1.5 mill increase. That translates to a $75 annual tax increase for those with a home worth $100,000. 

Laura Valentine, art teacher at Northwestern Middle School points out some elements of art to Keondre Buchanan and other students.Hannah says the performing arts center can open up young people to the idea that there are jobs available in the arts.

“I always feel like when you look at career opportunities, you’re only pointed towards engineering and business and those kinds of professions,” Hannah says. “Everyone has this idea that you can’t make money in the arts, but you can. Having a school or something that points students directly to the fine arts would be huge for kids and give them opportunities to explore that creative side of their brain instead of doing what people think they should be doing.”

She's also supportive of the bond vote because of the skills she has learned through her classes. In marching band, Hannah says she is part of a team, but also has an individual part to play in a bigger project that all comes together at one moment when everyone is in step and playing their instruments. She says through the marching band she has had people who have backed her up and supported her, both on and off the field, and they have become like her family.

“It’s helped me to communicate better. A big part of marching band is communication and if you need help with something you can ask other members,” she says. “It’s helped me to be a better person. You can see that your hard work turns into bigger goals and success. I’ve learned that people get frustrated, but you’ve got to work through those things. You just become a better and more supportive person and a better team leader and partner and have a commitment to things.”

Those communications also have helped her have better interactions with her teachers.
David Fooy is the principal at Northwestern Middle School.
“I am more open with them about the struggles,” Hannah says. “There are so many different things that you can do and ways to get into a profession,” she says.

She plays the piccolo in the marching band and the flute in concert band. Hannah says she feels like her participation in the bands at BCCHS has helped her to be more open-minded and flexible, especially when things don’t go as originally planned. 

David Fooy, who is in his second year as Principal at Northwestern, says passage of the bond proposal is critical to keeping students in BCPS and enticing those who have left to come back.

“Historically, over the last few years, we’re losing our students. Students living in the BCPS district have been migrating to other schools not in the district because of the choices and options they (other districts) have there like video and music production and drama classes,” Fooy says. “If this bond passes maybe we’ll be able to draw back some kids who have left for other school districts and bring in kids from other districts. Northwestern will be the only performing arts school in this area.”

Fooy says Northwestern's focus and curriculum “stimulates the brain and creates different kinds of thinkers. Tying into the arts will improve the academic performance of the students enrolled here.”

BCPS Superintendent Kimberly Carter says, “We heard from our community that not all students are interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Mathematics, and Engineering). We also had a lot of students who were interested in the arts and there are students who learn better through the arts. We know what the arts do for students. We also recognize that the arts allow them to connect to their education. When they connect they have higher a higher level of engagement and access their education in different ways because of the different ways they are learning.”

And, Fooy says, the changes to Northwestern will go far beyond the four walls of the school.

Braylen Bushee-Holcomb, left, and Sylvia West, sixth grade students at Northwestern Middle School practice their trumpets in music class.“This is not only going to transform BCPS. We’re also looking to transform the neighborhood around Northwestern — Washington Heights,” he says. “As soon as you walk into my building as a kindergartener, I will have you for nine years. The relationships and community that we can build in this school are exciting, just getting to know the parents on a personal level and working with them and their children.”

Fooy says another big advantage for students will be the absence of transitions from one school to another that typically is experienced when they move from elementary to middle school. “Basically, this is going to be your home for nine years and you’re not going to have to worry about transitions,” he says. “This will relieve some of the anxiety for our kids as well.”

Northwestern can handle up to 800 students. The school currently serves 231 sixth- through eighth-graders, Fooy says. With the passage of the bond proposal, the plan is to have two classrooms per grade level up to fifth grade with a cap of 25 students per classroom. That would bring an additional 250 students into the school.

“In the early elementary years, they will be exposed to all different areas of the arts and experience painting, drawing and coloring, and music. As they progress and move up into different grade levels they will start to create or choose a field they want to specialize in,” Fooy says. “They will also have four content classes – math, language arts, science and social studies embedded into their learning.”

Students in kindergarten through second grade will focus on reading and mathematics, he says, while third, fourth, and fifth graders will get more experience in science and social studies.

“To start in kindergarten and go through eighth grade in this way is a really great opportunity for students to excel,” says Catherine LaValley, President of the BCPS School Board.

Display cases at Northwestern Middle School’s audtiorium show prominent role models.Initially, elementary teachers currently working at other schools will be brought in to work at Northwestern.

“Obviously, we’re going to have to move some staff,” Fooy says. “Once we develop the curriculum, we’ll look at what teachers we have to fit that curriculum and we may have to hire people who are experts in those fields.”

Good bones in need of strengthening

While the transformations of what will be taught and learned at Northwestern and Springfield middle schools are the major focus, making much-needed brick and mortar repairs to each of the buildings also is important, Carter says.

“Our buildings matter,” she says. “The average age of our buildings is 85 years and we need to update them. People need to know that these buildings don’t have air conditioning. Our students deserve to have good air quality and we want to make sure the air quality in our buildings meets that standard, especially given what’s going on now with COVID-19.”

If the bond proposal passes, it would allow COVID relief funds to be stretched. Carter says the bond funds would be used for the renovations to Northwestern and Springfield which will free up COVID relief funds for use at other schools in the district that are in need of quality air systems.
“We’re very fortunate to have buildings with very good bones,” says La Valley. “It’s the insides that need to be brought up to modern standards. We want energy-efficient windows and air conditioning which is so necessary for a good learning environment and will, in the long run, save some energy costs too.”

In May, this same bond proposal failed by less than 40 votes. If the bond proposal is again defeated, Carter says, “We run the risk of long-term building repairs taking even longer because our finances don’t stretch across 20 buildings that are 85 years of age. We’re committed to making sure that it happens, but it will take more time if the bond doesn’t pass.”

She says if she were to tell someone why they should support the bond proposal, she would say, “Our teachers deserve quality teaching environments and our students deserve quality learning environments. It’s understanding that what could happen at Northwestern and Springfield has the opportunity to change students lives and that their vote has the ability to not only change students lives but to also add value back to the community they live in.”

Hannah says she would tell voters that they should vote to support kids who have a creative mindset.

“This opens up opportunities for the creative child,” she says, “who most of the time gets shut down for doodling.”

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.