MLK Jr.’s Legacy and the Work of Our School

Our school is in the middle of an awakening- a reimagining, a rebirth.  Over the last 15 months, leadership, staff, the Board, and families have come together to work hard clarifying our vision for our future and articulating our core values as a school.  One of our 4 core values is EQUITY.  How do we seek to live that value every day?

When I accepted the position of Executive Director of GRCDC 15 months ago, it was with a deep knowledge of our strengths, our opportunities for growth, and the dynamic hope and possibilities of this place.  Last March, I addressed the school community and publicly framed the problem our school faces regarding inequity and the first steps towards change. If you missed it, you can read the deck here or watch the video here (super side note: I fall over in the video 41 minutes in.  I was fine, but I feel the need to warn people before they watch because it can be a little surprising.)

Our school, as most schools in our country, has an equity problem that is based on race and class.  You see, it is common knowledge that every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets. Our major institutions, including education, were never designed to well serve all people equally or equitably.  As a result, we find ourselves now in a situation where we can choose to change our system, so that we may achieve different results or continue to maintain a status quo that harms us all.  We have a staff committed to equity work, we have a vision and core values to guide us, and now we need to make sure that ALL of us are a part of this work to create an equitable, life-affirming, and options-expanding school for all children who attend here.

Martin Luther King Jr Day is an opportunity to reflect on our work in context of his work- what was he calling for, what have we done, and where are we going?  When we reflect on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., calling on all of us to work towards nonviolent social change through information gathering, education, personal commitment, discussion/negotiation, direct action and reconciliation, we must take stock of where we are currently striving, where we may be missing something, and where we must go next.  

Martin Luther King Jr., who is pretty universally beloved now, was not universally beloved in his time.  In fact, he spoke hard truths in beautiful ways and lead and participated in many direct actions that were unpopular.  He was brutalized for it, and eventually killed. His legacy is of doing the hard, uncomfortable work, of keeping at it each day, of making mistakes and trying again, and speaking truth in times of conflict.  This quote from author Austin Channing Brown grounds me in my thinking, as a white leader of a racially diverse school district, A whitewashed understanding of King is incredibly frustrating….King’s demonstrations were controversial. King was physically assaulted on multiple occasions. King was too extreme for some and too moderate for others. King received death threats from strangers and suggestions to commit suicide from the govt. King was imperfect fo sho (aren’t we all). But he believed deeply in the inherent dignity of black folks. If your political desires aren’t rooted in seeking justice that recognizes the dignity of blackness, you are whitewashing his quotes, taking him out of context, and (mis)using his legacy of books, essays, sermons. If you really want to honor King, I suggest you take some time to reflect on how you have undermined black dignity, and how you can work to restore what you tried to destroy.”

So what are we working on, as a school, to restore what our country has tried so hard to destroy? We believe that this work is daily, systemic, and never ending.   Grand Rapids Child Discovery Center is proudly in year 1 of a 3 year Equity Pilot through MiBLISI and the Michigan Department of Education. Through this pilot, we have monthly facilitation, support and coaching from Beth Hill, LMSW and Dr. Ruth Payno-Simmons, the leaders of the project. This pilot takes our staff through deep professional development around issues of identity, race and equity, while also teaching us the tools and helping implement the systems to end racial disproportionality in our school.  We have been hard at work in this pilot since September. The intended outcomes of this year’s work are:

  • Emphasize results and focusing on adult behavior
  • Meet on a regular basis to systematically examine data specific to understanding behaviors and disproportionality
  • Foster critical consciousness amongst staff and administration
  • Decrease in disproportionate discipline
  • Explicitly name and understand the role of race in inequitable outcomes by engaging in ongoing learning around implicit bias and our socio-historical context
  • Develop and carry out action plans specific to the data review process
  • Align action items to school/district improvement process and plans

I share this work with you for 3 reasons:

  1. I am incredibly proud of our staff and their dedication to equity work.  In all my years in education and in the dozens of schools I’ve visited across our nation, I’ve never seen a staff more ready to do this work than ours.
  2. I acknowledge that right now, we don’t have some of the MLK Day programming that other schools may have, and I want to name that we have chosen to approach our equity work as part of our daily life and ultimate goal of our system- not a special celebration that we think of one day and forget the next.  However, we are ready to build new, sustainable traditions in our school that represent this point of view and need your help.
  3. It is time for our equity work to involve our whole school community in a more specific way, especially our families.  Please be on the lookout for many opportunities to engage in this work together.

In closing, I want us to remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy by pushing towards this challenging quote from his Letter from A Birmingham Jail (1963) that grounds us in the work ahead towards an equitable GRCDC, “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed in the white moderate.  I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal of your work but cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season”.  Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating that absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” We are poised and ready to push GRCDC past a negative peace into a positive peace- the presence of justice within our school.  How do you plan to join us?

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Gratitude and Thanksgiving Misgivings

Dear Families,

As we head into Thanksgiving break together, I want to personally wish each and every one of you a safe and healthy break. I am so thankful for our community and the work we do together. This week, we spent time talking with students about the idea that “happiness is the only thing that multiplies when you share it”. Our school community is focusing on our values of connection, inspiration, potential, and equity. Within that, it is important to stop, look around, and share our gratitude with one another. THANK YOU for all the love and support you give to our staff each day- we could not be growing and improving the way that we are if it was not for each of you also giving of yourselves to this community. For that, I am deeply thankful.

Being thankful is not complicated, but the holiday of Thanksgiving is complicated. When reflecting on our equity core value, I am called to consider the historical context of this upcoming holiday. I was doing some reading on this website and reminded that, “Thanksgiving is a tricky holiday. While it provides us much needed time to focus on themes of family and gratitude, it also surfaces many problematic narratives related to our history and particularly our treatment of Native American/American Indian people”. Please take some time to talk with your children about the rich and important history regarding this national holiday. Our children are so capable of thinking critically about our nation’s history while also enjoying current traditions with friends and family. Have a look at this resource from NPR or this one from Teaching Tolerance.

As adults, we are often concerned that our children can’t “handle” the true stories of our nation (and world’s) history. Based on my 20 years working with children of all ages, nothing can be further from the truth. The children in our school community attend a diverse school and interact with people of different racial, ethnic, religious, and ideological backgrounds everyday. They already know through their relationships with one another and their learning that inequity exists. Understanding how this came to be, historically and understanding their role in changing this for the future allows students to live into their full potential as whole humans. On that note, make sure that your children know that Native American/American Indian people are STILL HERE, and live and work in our community today. Understanding this and how to connect with and respect the history and traditions of our Native friends and community members is essential to changing the narrative for the future.

Finally, I am struck and challenged by the words of educator Vera Stenhouse, from her article “Rethinking Thanksgiving: Myths and Misgivings”. Ms. Stenhouse writes, “We still have the enduring uncritical portrayal of the first Thanksgiving. I believe a connection exists between the unwillingness to “give up” the beneficent 1621 Thanksgiving story and the ongoing appropriation of the imagery, spirituality, ceremonies, sovereign rights, and identity of this country’s Indigenous peoples. Students from all racial and cultural backgrounds learn early that it is OK to play Indian. They learn that Indians wear “costumes,” feathers define cultural features for all Indians, and sacred cultural artifacts are crafts to be made from brown paper bags, paper towel rolls, paper plates, and construction paper. And after Thanksgiving, crafts and all, the “Natives” disappear back onto the shelf.
Confronting racism, injustice, prejudice, and stereotypes through a consciousness-raising education is a far cry from the fun-filled, feel-good activities characteristic of how schools approach holidays. With respect to Indigenous peoples, I want my students to acknowledge the diverse and unique traditions among Native American cultures and to explore the historic and contemporary legacy of colonial intrusion, brutality, and cultural ignorance…I want my students to recognize that the histories of Indigenous peoples have been subverted, silenced, and misrepresented in the curriculum. Equally important: I want my students to recognize that we can do something about it
.” And, for the future I know our students will write for us, as result of their education based on relationships, with their families and their teachers, I feel truly thankful

With gratitude,
Lisa Heyne

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Columbus Day

Dear Families,

We have finished our first full month of school and we are on to October!  It is a very exciting time at GRCDC- many classes have enjoyed field trips to ArtPrize, 3rd Grade attended Immerse at the Public Museum, and the whole school has started our Community Morning Meetings every other Monday.  Our school is truly a vibrant and bustling place to be right now!


With October, comes the federal holiday of Columbus Day.  This day is commemorated the second Monday of each October and many schools and businesses may be closed.  Along with being a federal holiday, Columbus Day is considered a holiday in many states and municipalities.  On the flip side, many communities have marked the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day. Indigenous Peoples Day is meant to be a counter-celebration of Native American peoples and their history and culture and was first changed in South Dakota in 1989.


Our school community has committed to the Image of being whole, in relationship, and diverse.  Part of honoring our diverse community is ensuring that our children feel valued and represented in their identities. Part of the role of schools is to teach history and social studies. Christopher Columbus, like many historical figures, has a mythology about him, as well historical facts.  Children are able to wrestle with complicated ideas, but in this case, it isn’t just about ideas. We have children in our community and at our school who identify as Native, and it is important that they feel safe and seen and know that we do not celebrate a holiday that represents the violent colonization of Indigenous Peoples in the Western Hemisphere.  Instead, we, as a learning community, can consider the complicated history and symbolism of Christopher Columbus.


Here are some resources for thinking and talking about Columbus’ legacy with your children:

Teaching Christopher Columbus: Mythbusters– National History Education Clearinghouse

9 Resources for Teaching the Truth about Columbus– Indian Country Today

Reconsider Columbus Day– Teaching Tolerance

The Columbus Day Problem– Harvard Graduate School of Education

How to Talk to Kids about America Before Columbus- Time Magazine


Part of our educational philosophy as a Reggio-inspired school is approaching children as strong, rich in potential, and powerful.  Our children are more than capable of understanding the “real” stories within history, as opposed to those many of us learned in school.  We just have to have the courage and the knowledge to do so.


Most sincerely,



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School Culture

Dear Families,

Can you believe that we only have 13 school days (after today) left to the 2018-2019 school year?  We have many special activities and events happening over the next couple of weeks, so make sure to check the school calendar and mark your family calendar accordingly.  When I look at the school calendar for the next few weeks and also being to plan the calendar for next year, I can’t help thinking about one of our school’s focus topics: School Culture.


School Culture defines our ways of being in relationship together- how it feels, sounds, and looks for all of us to be “at school”.  School Culture describes the relationships between staff members, families and students along different points of contact. What makes up the School Culture at Grand Rapids Child Discovery Center?  What works for us? What doesn’t? What are we each bringing to the experience?


One way to think of the culture of a school is through thinking about our routines, rituals, and relationships/role models.  These three aspects of culture are essential to build a collective identity and collective responsibility, as well as act as the “glue” that makes school cohesive for students.  Let’s take a look at each of these, and as we do, I invite you to think about this closing school year and next year and how you might want to be involved with any of these aspects of school culture:


  • Routines:  Routines are daily.  The purpose of rountines is for efficiency, safety, and consistency for all.  Routines are essential to a strong culture because they ensure flow and predictability, saving personalized attention for higher level needs.  Examples of Routines at GRCDC: Drop off/School Arrival, Pick Up/School Dismissal, Visitor Check Ins, the Link Letter, and Lunch/Recess.


  • Rituals:  Rituals are regular expressions of values and beliefs.  They bring meaning and connection to the school year throughout the days and weeks.  Examples of Rituals at GRCDC: Afternoon Meeting, Portfolio Day, EOY Celebration, 5th grade graduation, Fall/Winter Celebration, Summer Park Meet-Ups.


  • Relationships/Role Modeling:  Students having strong relationships with adults and each other, as well as specific role modeling of healthy relationships, is an important part of social and emotional development.  Our school places a special priority here. Examples of Relationship/Role Modeling at GRCDC: staying with the same teachers for 2 years, partners in different classes (reading buddies, etc.), increased recess time, Safeties program, Mr. Trevor’s Family Liaison role, special guests in the classroom (Grandparent day, visiting weatherman, etc.).


All three of these aspects of a healthy culture should be seen and felt school-wide, as well as in each classroom, within the context of clear expectations for students and a plan for how we respond when things go wrong.  As we move into next year, we are really focusing on working on our school-wide culture- understanding what it means to be a student at GRCDC, the responsibility and privilege each of us have to culture here, and how to ensure that “Education Based on Relationships” results in our student have strong, flexible, and sophisticated social and emotional skills that will allow them to be successful wherever and whatever they would like to do!  If you have thoughts you would like to share on this, please let me know: heynel@childdiscoverycenter.org, 616-459-0330, OR find me at the front gate most mornings!  Thank you!





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