Black River Public School in Holland, Mich. offers an innovative education to 420 students. Parents and teachers boast of the school's emphasis on foreign language, hands-on projects, thriving art programs, and Advanced Placement courses.
Black River Public School, established in Holland, Mich. in
1996, is the kind of charter school parents are looking for when they take their
children out of the traditional public school setting. It offers innovative
programs and a unique educational experience that is spurring high student
achievement. And that makes parents very happy.
So happy, in fact, that student enrollment has nearly doubled
since the school opened in the 1996-1997 school year.
Black River's 420 fourth- through twelfth-grade students
attend classes in a grand, marble-floored historic building, donated by BASF, a
worldwide chemical company, in 1999.
The school, chartered by Grand Valley State University (GVSU),
uses a college preparatory curriculum, emphasizes foreign languages, schedules
longer class periods, offers Advanced Placement (AP) courses, and gives students
the chance to engage in a host of hands-on activities.
Black River's curriculum consists of core classes including
English, mathematics, history, government, natural sciences, musical and
performing arts, and foreign language. All core class sizes are kept small,
between 18 and 20 students, and are held in 85-minute sessions, instead of the
traditional 40- to 50-minute class. Graduation requirements are more stringent
than state requirements and include a three-year course of study in high school
Spanish, community service participation, and a hands-on "capstone experience"
for all students.
In the capstone experience, which is completed the last four
weeks of the school year, students design and execute a major project which may
include international travel, "job shadowing" (in which students go to work with
a real-world professional), or a variety of other real-world educational
experiences. All projects are presented at an annual showcase at the end of the
Black River parents and school officials say the capstone
experience, which they refer to as "Project Term," provides an excellent
opportunity for the school to showcase student interests, teacher talents, and
to increase parental and community involvement in the school.
"Project Term is four weeks of hands-on learning," Chief
Administrative Officer David Angerer told Michigan Education Report.
"Students do everything - projects have included chess classes, rebuilding
engines, theatre workshops, space camp, trips to Spain, among other things. It
allows teachers to share an interest and allows parents and community members to
share their talents and assist with teaching the students."
Students in all grades participate in a variety of community
service projects. Black River students have lent their talents to organizations
including Habitat for Humanity, the Red Cross, local nursing homes, charity food
drives, and other local charities. Curriculum requirements state that fourth-
and fifth-graders must fulfill 15 hours of unpaid community service, sixth-
through eighth-graders must fulfill 20 hours, and ninth- through twelfth-graders
must fulfill 60 hours in order to graduate.
The school also encourages high school students to take AP
courses and tests for college credit before they graduate. It offers AP courses
in biology, calculus, chemistry, English literature, European history, physics,
psychology and U.S. history. More than half of the senior students at Black
River participate in the advanced courses; and, of the students taking national
AP tests last year, 80 percent scored well enough to obtain college credit in
the subjects tested.
The innovative curriculum has proven effective for Black
River, with student scores on Michigan Educational Assessment Program tests
posting higher than state and local averages in nearly every subject area. Black
River students also perform well on college entrance exams.
In addition, the school offers an excellent education for
students with special needs. Approximately 15 percent of Black River students
require special education services, a higher ratio than the state average. The
school maintains small class sizes, dedicated staff, and resource rooms for
Parents attribute Black River's success to rigorous academics
and an innovative curriculum.
"We visited Black River because we were curious about exactly
what made it different from a traditional public school," one parent expressed
in a letter to the school. "We learned that, although Black River is fully
accredited and meets or exceeds all State requirements, it is not tied to the
local school district's requirements for curriculum, textbooks or scheduling."
"That is why they can schedule longer class time and tailor
their curriculum to meet the needs of their achievement-oriented philosophy,"
the parent continued. "The Black River philosophy works - you can see it in the
enthusiasm of the staff and the kids and in the overall academic results."
Others in the education community agree that Black River's
teachers are accomplishing notable feats. The Michigan Association of Public
School Academies (MAPSA) recently awarded Black River teacher Fran Oleson its
2002 Teacher of the Year award at its annual conference.
"Oleson's fourth-grade students scored well above state MEAP
averages, with 90 percent passing math and 80 percent passing reading tests,"
MAPSA explained in a press release. "Among fifth graders, nearly 90 percent
passed each of the science, writing and social studies tests. Gregory J.
Dykhouse, the school's director of academics, said many students had to progress
more than one year academically in order to pass those tests."
The association touts Oleson as a model for the education
community, and an excellent representative for charter schools.
"Fran Oleson demonstrates the ways in which charter school
teachers are making education come alive for students statewide," MAPSA
President Dan Quisenberry said. "She is an example of what happens when you
give quality teachers the freedom to do what they know is necessary for students
Black River officials say autonomy for the school and its
teachers is very important to student success and must be defended.
Angerer explains that though his school "fills out every
piece of regulatory paper the public schools do," the school also must comply
with regulations from its charter authorizer (GVSU), often producing a mountain
of paperwork that detracts from educating students.
"You feel like you're jumping through hoops, not helping
kids," he said. "Sometimes we can't focus resources on student needs, but are
mired in reporting requirements."
Angerer admits, however, that GVSU is a "very responsible
authorizer" and assists the school in complying with a myriad of state
One of the least flexible and hardest regulations to swallow,
Angerer explained, is the requirement that the school must hire state-certified
teachers. He says the rule limits the school's ability to hire experts in their
fields - such as physicists or math experts who do not have Michigan teaching
He laments, "College professors can teach teachers for 20
years but can't teach here [at Black River] without going back to school for
years to become certified."
Despite the ever-increasing regulatory burden, however, Black
River continues to excel at providing an outstanding education to its students.
It is providing a strong example to other charter schools, and giving
traditional public schools the stiff competition that school-choice advocates
claim is needed to improve public education across the board.
For more information on Black River Public School, visit
For more information on the Michigan Association of Public School Academies,