MUSKEGON HEIGHTS, Mich. (WOOD) — Muskegon Heights Academy students rallied outside the school on Monday night to protest the company in charge of the district. They held signs reading “we need teachers now” as a teacher shortage continues across the district.
But it’s not just teachers leaving the district. Katie Kapteyn, who teaches English to 7th and 9th graders, said many students are leaving too.
“Unfortunately our enrollment continues to drop drastically,” Kapteyn said. “It’s becoming more and more of an urgent situation. Our students are going to other districts now. We’re having a mass exodus of students and teachers.”
Kapteyn said a teacher shortage that has been going on all school year is only getting worse. Right now, she says there are only five certified teachers and five substitutes, plus another substitute for special education.
Making thing worse, some are leaving over the next two weeks, leaving the academy with just three certified teachers for hundreds of students.
“I’ve asked numerous times how few staff members can we have to run the school,” she said. “And that’s the issue we’re facing right now. We can’t lose anymore.”
That’s why Kapteyn brought together students and parents outside the school to call for the removal of New Paradigm for Education, the firm in charge of the district since July.
“If we’re losing these numbers and staff, it has only happened under their oversight,” Kapteyn said. “It has not improved at all from them being here.”
The public school academy board has given New Paradigm until early next month to make changes, threatening to hold the firm in breach of contract, potentially cutting off future payments.
New Paradigm’s founder and president, Ralph Bland, has acknowledged it has been difficult to get teachers to come to Muskegon Heights. He has said that it will be a long path to make things better, but he believes the firm is up to the task.
The firm recently hired a brand-new teacher, Seth Roberts, who grew up in Muskegon.
“New Paradigm for Education took the time to hire me and went through the rigorous process of getting me hired in, and I’m here to work with both organizations to get this fixed,” Roberts said.
Roberts had his first day of teaching on Monday.
“It was wonderful,” Roberts said. “The kids are just really excited to start learning. I had a really great experience on the first day.”
Roberts substituted at Muskegon Heights and other districts years ago and just left a factory job to join the school full-time as a social studies teacher.
“It was best to come back to a district that needed me,” Roberts said. “I could have gone to any school district. There are a lot of school districts that need a teacher. I could have stayed working at a factory. I wanted to come here because I know that I have the certification needed, and they would really appreciate it, and it ended up being exactly what it was.”
Despite being hired as a social studies teacher, Roberts did not teach the subject on his first day. Because the school is short on substitute teachers, he is temporarily filling in as a science teacher. He said he plans to start teaching social studies next Monday.
Roberts said he came to Muskegon Heights to make a difference.
“There’s people that care that want the school still to thrive,” he said. “I don’t want the school to go. I think it’d be a terrible thing for the students and the families.”
Kapetyn said students are struggling right now. The current seniors at the school have experienced three different charter management companies over the last few years. If New Paradigm is replaced, Kapteyn believes things can get better.
“There’s always solutions,” she said. “We are working and strategizing and coming up with anything and everything we can to fit the students’ needs and the community’s needs. Finding out what’s going to be the good fit, that’s going to rebrand the district to bring students and teachers in, that’s what’s going to set us apart.”
Despite the continual challenges, Kapteyn says it is not time to give up.
“It can’t be the end, it won’t be the end,” she said. “To me, we may have hit our low point. But we can only build up from here. It’s time to take urgent action right now, and that’s why we’re out here because we need the community to support us.”
Roberts said the district especially needs science teachers, elementary school teachers and special education teachers.
“Please come to Muskegon Heights, and you’ll love it, it’s a really great place to teach these kids,” Roberts said. “I don’t think you’ll understand how much they would appreciate you until you came here.”