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School and metro rankings

Depending on individual preference or personal
priorities, the schools and suburbs rankings are a veritable grocery store of offerings, including everything from school districts' ACT scores and teacher quality to median household income and the percentage of owner-occupied homes in various municipalities.

By Tim Gortsema
Photography by Michael Buck

West Michigan boasts a number of quality grocery stores. Whether shoppers are buying meat, produce, bulk items, organic fare or staples, they have many options from which to choose, and all are good. But most people have a favorite, based on their own preferences, location, financial situations and shopping history.

The same premise can be used for Grand Rapids Magazine’s annual rankings of the suburbs and schools. Depending on individual preference or personal priorities, the schools and suburbs rankings are a veritable grocery store of offerings, including everything from school districts’ ACT scores and teacher quality to median household income and the percentage of owner-occupied homes in various municipalities. Think of it in terms of a personal investment tool.

With that in mind, take a look at some of the “aisles” of choices in West Michigan. The information is presented to the reader to determine what’s most important.

The rankings in the following charts are based on raw data from Grand Rapids Magazine research that is then presented to the Grand Rapids office of the public accounting and business services firm Beene Garter LLP, which provides a host of services in the areas of audit, tax, advisory, employer support and wealth management. The rankings are tabulated by a weighted formula used by Beene Garter, based on the information made available by Grand Rapids Magazine.

The Schools
The first lesson in Econ 101 is TANSTAAFL: There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.

While that may be true in the world of economics, there appear to be plenty of free lunches (or at least cheaper ones) being served in West Michigan schools. Part of this can be attributed to a change during the 2006-2007 school year in the Free and Reduced Price Lunch eligibility data collection, in which students now qualify for reduced-price lunches based on financial information provided to the schools, as opposed to having to submit a claim form to see if individual students are eligible. Not only is the process easier, but the economic downturn strangling West Michigan for the past few years also has an obvious impact.

Some schools, such as Byron Center, East Grand Rapids, Rockford and Forest Hills, had nominal increases in free or reduced-price lunches ranging from 1 to 3 percent when comparing figures from 2005 to those of 2008.

Others, however, saw marked increases in the percentages of students qualifying for these lunches. These included Comstock Park (19 percent) and Wyoming, Greenville, Kelloggsville, Godwin Heights, Godfrey Lee, Lakewood and Kenowa Hills (14 percent to 15 percent).


Jesse Juneau and son Aiden take a walk in
their Jamestown Township subdivision.

While Grand Rapids’— figures rose 12 percent, nearly 85 percent of students in the district now qualify for the lunch program.

Another economic indicator that does not bode well for the area is school district enrollment. Based on 2009 figures from the Michigan Department of Education, almost all school districts in the area lost students compared to 2008. Notable exceptions include Forest Hills, Hudsonville, Comstock Park, Byron Center, Rockford and Caledonia. But that's it. Every other district posted losses.

While West Michigan school districts are dealing with more economically disadvantaged kids and sliding enrollment (and, therefore, decreased state funding), all is not lost.

In fact, many of the educational outcomes listed in this year's rankings trend toward positive. For example, the majority of school districts improved their average ACT scores for spring 2009 as compared to 2008. The number of districts with 100 percent of teachers determined to be “"highly qualified,"” based on the Michigan Department of Education's guidelines, also improved significantly. The better quality of teachers is now essential, as almost every district also reported a higher student-to-teacher ratio when compared to figures from 2007.

The Suburbs
The suburbs are not immune to the economic downturn, either. Overall, housing starts are down in West Michigan, with a few exceptions. These include the cities of Grand Rapids, Hudsonville, Rockford and Lowell, the townships of Grand Rapids, Jamestown, Lowell, Oakfield, Plainfield, Solon, Sparta and Spencer, and the village of Sparta.

Property values, as might be expected, are plummeting. Significant dips in per-parcel values, which include vacant land, from 2007 to 2008, occurred in Algoma Township (6.2 percent), Alpine Township (6.7 percent), Cedar Springs (7.4 percent), Grand Rapids Township (7.8 percent), Grandville (6.6 percent), Hudsonville (6.4 percent), Rockford (6.9 percent) and Wyoming (7.4 percent).

Does this mean the above localities are less desirable places to live? Hardly. Most likely they are even more attractive in terms of property acquisition while the real estate market is soft. It should be noted that while property values are dropping, they still carry hefty values per parcel ($295,918 in East Grand Rapids, $275,547 in Ada and $274,194 in Cascade, for example).

While the schools are losing students, it's not necessarily at an alarming rate. And help may be on the way. The latest available population figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, for July 1, 2008, indicate that most municipalities in West Michigan are holding their own in terms of residents. The gains outweigh the losses, which should translate into more students for the schools in the coming years.

Spring Grove Park in Jamestown Township is a popular picnic spot for families. Opposite page, the 16-acre park features a flowing spring and nature area.

Historically speaking, West Michigan retains a healthy population growth rate from 2000 to 2008 with the bulk of municipalities featuring growth of 8 percent to 18 percent over those eight years. Caledonia Township tops the list of growers at 26.5 percent, followed by Lowell Township at 24.9 percent and Ottawa County's Jamestown Township at 24.5 percent.

Throw in solid owner-occupied housing rates, relatively short commute times (almost all less than half an hour) and better-than-national-average median household incomes, and West Michigan remains a healthy place to live and raise a family.

About The Categories
In the school chart, there are two value levels. The higher-ranked categories include Graduation Rate, Dropout Rate, Average ACT Score, MEAP High School Reading Proficiency, MEAP High School Math Proficiency, Percentage of Highly Qualified Teachers, Students Per Teacher, Local-Source Revenue, Percentage of Adults with at Least a Bachelor's Degree, Physical Assaults by Students and Weapons Possession by Students. The lower ranked categories include Taxable Property Value Per Student, Diversity and Adults with a High School Diploma. Categories not listed above are unranked in the school chart.

In the metro chart, there are three value levels. The higher-rated categories include School District Score, Percent of Owner-Occupied Housing, Average Value Per Parcel and the Average Value Percentage Change. The middle-ranked categories include Diversity, Average Commute Time, Park Acreage, Environmental Score, Violent Crimes Per Capita and Non-Violent Crimes Per Capita. The lower ranked category is Voter Turnout. Categories not listed here are unranked. GR

Tim Gortsema is a freelance writer and former managing editor of sister publication Grand Rapids Business Journal.


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