Leading to Expand Opportunity in Greater Grand Rapids
Meet Dr. Jennifer Slanger
When Dr. Jennifer Slanger started her early education in Grand Rapids Public Schools, her school experience didn’t necessarily reflect the district’s diversity at large. She recalls, “My elementary school was primarily White students. I think I can remember one or two Black children in the entire kindergarten through sixth-grade building.”
High school, however, was a different story. In the summer between 8th and 9th grade, the city of Grand Rapids decided to open all the high schools to any student. Instead of being limited to neighborhood high schools, which in her case was Union High School, anyone in the city of Grand Rapids could attend any high school. For some, that seemed like a scary change. Dr. Slanger soon discovered it was a blessing.
Now, Dr. Slanger serves as the Director of Teaching and Learning for the Wyoming Public Schools in the Greater Grand Rapids area. Her experiences within education as a student and educator inform how she is continually working to ensure every scholar in her district has access to a high-quality education today.
FROM SCHOOL PSYCHOLOGIST TO PRINCIPAL
During graduate school, Dr. Slanger was placed at Wyoming Public Schools for her internship. After graduation, she spent her first year at another school until Wyoming had an opening for a school psychologist. There, school psychologists are considered administrators, so they have more decision-making and leadership opportunities than in some other districts.
During this time, the district was rethinking the discrepancy model of identifying students who qualified for special education services. She says, “I was placed at Oriole Park Elementary School as a school psychologist along with two of our other elementary schools and then one of our junior high schools. As I would engage in students’ study team meetings, at the building level, or actually proceed with special education evaluations, race and ethnicity never occurred to me. It was, ‘These are the students that are being referred. These are the evaluations I need to get done.’”
That all changed a few years in when the district was cited for over representing Black students in special education programs. This was an “ah-ha” moment for Dr. Slanger, that made her reconsider the assessments and eventually pushed her toward a new career path.
Lessons Learned as a Principal
During her 9 years as a principal, Dr. Slanger noticed some gaps in alignment between schools and how instruction was happening in different buildings. She reflects,
“I was learning at the time as a principal just how important it is to have very clear expectations and have aligned systems. What I was noticing is that we didn’t have clearly aligned and articulated systems throughout our district.
So, if I was a second-grade student at Oriole Park, and I transferred midyear to a different elementary school in our district, oftentimes, they would have a very different experience with regard to the curricular resources that were being implemented.”
Realizing this was a systemic problem, Dr. Slanger looked to outside resources to help close that gap. The school partnered with Leading Educators, opening new doors to the possibility of what a student’s educational experience could be.
MOVING TO THE CENTRAL OFFICE
Seven years into her principalship, Dr. Slanger noticed inequities at the school level that she could address structurally at the district level.
We had children experiencing different types of trauma that were showing up and surfacing in the classroom, not just once or twice, but once or twice per day, by multiple students. It got to the point where so many supports needed to be provided, and I wanted to figure out a way to provide a more global perspective in both behavior and academic supports.”
After speaking with the superintendent and expressing her interest in curriculum and instruction, Dr. Slanger had the opportunity to move into her current role as Director of Teaching and Learning a couple of years later. One thing, she says, that hasn’t changed as she moved into that new role, is her dedication to the classroom and the teachers who make that education a reality for students every day. And it’s that understanding that allows everyone to work toward the same goals.
In part 2 of this story, Dr. Slanger talks more about her district’s instructional journey and the lessons she’s learned about leading for equity.
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