GRAND LEDGE – Marcus Davenport was a student at Michigan State University majoring in political science when he first thought about a career in education.
A volunteer stint at a Lansing elementary school convinced him to consider teaching. What most appealed to him then, the challenge, still drives his career as an administrator two decades later.
“My goal was to always work in challenging environments,” Davenport, 43, said.
For the last four years he’s been at the helm of Beecher Community Schools, a small school district of fewer than 700 students north of Flint. When he took the job as superintendent there, Davenport said, the district was $1.5 million in debt and enrollment numbers were dropping rapidly.
Today Beecher Community Schools is out of the red.
Davenport will start as superintendent of Grand Ledge Public Schools on Thursday. With a three-year, $195,000-a-year contract, Davenport will have the highest annual salary of any superintendent in Greater Lansing’s 16 school districts.
He assumes the role amid efforts over the past year to ensure Grand Ledge schools become more focused on diversity and being more inclusive and equitable. Former superintendent Brian Metcalf was fired last fall, more than three months after he posted Facebook comments blaming George Floyd for his own death at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis.
Metcalf’s comments prompted current and former students to come forward and relay their own experiences with racism in the school district.
This month, as the Board of Education approved Davenport’s contract, public comment at two meetings was filled with differing opinions and concerns over critical race theory’s role in schools and what a return to in-person learning in the fall will entail.
Davenport listened to all of it. He intends to help create unity.
“My job is not to come in and pass judgment,” he said. “My job is not to come in and point fingers. My job is to come in and find solutions.”
A ‘documented divide’
At least 90% of the students at Beecher Community Schools are Black, Davenport said.
Less than 5% of Grand Ledge Public Schools’ 4,967 students are Black, John Ellsworth, the school district’s communications director, said last year.
There is a “documented divide” in Grand Ledge, Davenport said.
He watched a recording of the more than seven-hour Board of Education Zoom meeting last June, during which community members and students recounted racism they’ve experienced within the district.
“How great of a divide? It’s up to perception,” Davenport said. “I believe that one commonality for all parents is that they want what’s best for their children, and so I must use that commonality to create a unified school district that we must have to be successful.”
His first month on the job will be spent meeting people and paying attention to what they say. Davenport anticipates “very little sleep and a lot of energy being spent being visible and learning as much as I possibly can in the community before we begin the school year in the fall.”
Addressing the divide is his biggest challenge, Davenport said, but he’s “extremely optimistic and confident…because regardless of how things may have been written, I really know, trust and believe that I’ve only encountered parents in Grand Ledge who are concerned about their children and them receiving the best education possible.”
And while Davenport doesn’t take issue with critical race theory, which examines the effects of racism on Black Americans today, he said parents have a right to express their concerns about its role in the district’s curriculum and practices.
“Parents have the right to feel however they feel when it comes to their children,” he said. “We are in the business of educating children and doing what’s in the best interest of all children and that is my job.”
When the new school year begins this fall, Davenport believes there will be a return to face-to-face learning for students in the district.
“Just how does that look right now?” he said. “That’s something that I’m not able to provide you with a legitimate answer without taking the position on July 1.”
Interim Superintendent David Chapin, who will wrap up his year with the district this week, said building relationships is the best place for Davenport to start. That will be his message to Davenport when they talk this week, Chapin said.
“It’s a first step,” Chapin said. “I think it’s in all likelihood where he will begin.”
Jon Horford, who serves as co-chair of Grand Ledge United’s steering committee and serves on the school district’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee, said Davenport has already started that work.
They’ve spoken several times about the challenges facing the school district, Horford said.
“My goal is to come in and take a situation that may have some challenges and three years from now, people will say, ‘Wow, that’s where we were, but look where we are now,'” Davenport said. “That’s why I’m very careful when I talk about race, when I talk about politics, equity, and inclusion, all of those hot button items right now because I can’t allow my district to continue to be divided from a political lens when the focus then is not on our students. My concern is simply our students.”
Misinformation will be Davenport’s biggest obstacle, Horford said.
Despite the fact that community members are taking sides, Horford believes many want the same things for students.
“I think Marcus is the right person for the job,” he said. “He’s eager. He’s enthusiastic. He wants to work with all sides.”
Contact Rachel Greco at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GrecoatLSJ .
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