Speaker offers eyeopening school demographics – ‘Sometimes perception and reality are not the same thing’

Ethan Ebenstein, Superintendent of Comstock Park Public Schools, talks about the demographics of area schools. His presentation was before the Plainfield Township Board of Trustees Monday, February 27.





If you go to a school sporting event and look around, you may be surprised by the people in the audience, said Comstock School Superintendent Ethan Ebenstein. Ebenstein said he is interested in demographics, especially in school districts, and prepared a presentation using data from the 2014 census comparing area school districts.

The Plainfield Township Board of Trustees listens to a speaker on the demographics of area schools and districts.

“I think you will see when you look at the demographics of schools, the information is not indicative of the area,” he said to the Plainfield Township Board of Trustees and a very limited audience.

Ebenstein said districts can be Census Designated Places, which means the boundaries of a school district are not always clear cut, like that of a township or city. Because of this, among other things, the demographics of a district may not always match the imagined demographics of a city or area. He had interesting details to explain to the board.

The age of residents in area districts is rising, Ebenstein said. He presented a chart of residents in eight areas measuring the number of people under twenty (those most likely to be in school), 20 to 49 (those most likely to have children in school) and those 50 and up (likely empty nesters to senior citizens). He said people don’t realize how much the 50 and over demographic is growing.

When describing school enrollment trends, he took Rockford out of the chart because their numbers are so much higher it would scew the chart. Enrollments are declining from the 20082009 school year overall. Rockford dropped from 7914 students in the 20082009 year to 7795 in 2162017. Other districts are also losing students.

Population by ethnicity varies among the area districts as well. He said in his district, a large percentage of Hispanic students live in York Creek Apartments. Rockford was the whitest district with 95.5 percent of students, African American and Asian students make up 2.1 percent and Hispanic students are 2.2 percent of the total. Overall for Michigan’s schools, 79.2 percent of students are white, 14 percent are African American or Asian and 4.6 percent are Hispanic.

“Plainfield Township is spread out,” he described. When looking at the State of Michigan statistics, Ebenstein noted West Michigan is not the same as Michigan, and if you look at the data available for Holland, Muskegon, Grand Rapids triangle, there are a million people in it. For businesses looking to come to this area, they need to know if there is enough population to sustain it? Are there enough workers, enough households? Obviously there are, this area is thriving, he said.

For Plainfield Township, the population makes it economically secure. “Also when there are much more people, there is a greater expectation to offer more services.” He explained that the census and data for school districts is complicated, and especially in Plainfield Township, with parts of many districts in its boundaries, is difficult to compare according to this system.

He compared the make up of homes, how many homes have married heads of households compared to male only and female only. In Michigan, married household heads are at 74 percent with male only at seven percent and female only at 17 percent. Rockford is at 79 for married, with male only at five percent and female only at 14 percent.

Median home values are not average, but the middle in the range of home values. Rockford is at $146,400 for the medium value, compared to Plainfield at $156,200. For the West Michigan Triangle of Holland, Muskegon and Grand Rapids, the median value is $131,100 and in the State of Michigan the median is $120,020.

In 2014, rental households compared to total households significantly affects a students learning. Ebenstein said every time a child moves, it creates a six month detriment in learning. “It is very difficult with a mobile population where 30 percent of the mobile population moving in a twelve month period.”

He said in Comstock Park the York Creek apartments with 1,765 units, scew the counts compared to single family households. Trailer homes also affect the percentages. As a result, Comstock Park far exceeds other districts in rental homes at 54 percent of the total homes. Rockford, in comparison, is at 27 percent, Plainfield at 27 percent and the State of Michigan at 28 percent.

Mobility of families is difficult for districts and for student success. Usually it is the kindergarten through fifth grade students who move when their parents move. As kids get older, they are more able to find ways to stay in the school where their friends are, by “couch surfing” or staying at friends’ houses.

Ebenstein included a chart of residents covered by healthcare, “because it is timely.” He said his district of Comstock Park is the lowest at 80.7 percent, compared to Rockford at 96 percent and the State of Michigan at 89.1 percent. He said this is important, and that’s why Comstock Park maintains a partnership with Spectrum Health to have a school nurse on hand. He said the students who don’t have healthcare can use the services of Cherry Street dental, a vision specialist and other healthcare services.

“As budgets get tighter, we may not have a school nurse anymore.” In response to a question from a board member, he said the district pays half of the cost of the nurse, who is a Spectrum Health employee, and Spectrum Health receives a grant that helps pay their half of the cost.

The population percentage of those with higher education varies greatly. Rockford is at the highest with 40 percent, followed by Plainfield Township at 34 percent, then Northview at 32 percent. Comstock Park is at 20 percent, Walker at 31, Sparta at 20, Sparta Township at 19, and Alpine at 19. The Grand Rapids, Muskegon, Holland Triangle is at 27 percent, the State of Michigan at 26 percent.

He said education is a big focus for communities. “How do you get adults with additional training?It doesn’t have to be a college degree. We have an outstanding program at Kent ISD, almost to the detriment to career readiness.”

Economics is heavy information. “What does it mean to be in poverty?. It is defined as $24,000 or less for two adults with two kids. Again, the term median means middle, not average. He said the difference of $19,000 in a household makes a big difference, whether it is in the home, transportation or other factors in life. “When you put it into ethnicity, that really delves down into it. When you talk about a field trip and tell the student to bring in five dollars for that. That might be a lot for some families.”

Comstock Park and the City of Grand Rapids have the highest percentage of families in poverty at 25.4 and 26.7 percent poverty and median incomes of $40,451 and $39,913, respectively. Rockford has 10.9 percent in poverty and a median inclome of $55,508. Plainfield has the highest median income at $59,283 with 7.4 percent of families in poverty. Kent County overall has 15.3 percent of familiesin poverty, compared to 15.8 in Michigan and 13.5 in the United States. Median income for Kent County is $52,716, in Michigan $49,874 and the United States at $53,713.

By Ethnicity, median incomes vary greatly. In Comstock Park white families have a median income of $53,326, black and Asian $13,636 and Hispanic $26,460. In Rockford white families are at $84,432, black and Asian are not listed, and Hispanic families are at median $69,063. In Plainfield, white families have a median income of $74,785, black and Asian at $41,589 and Hispanic at $57,083. In Sparta, white families have a median income of $56,520, black and Asian are at $41,477 and Hispanic families are at $61,932.

Unemployment rates are at 8 percent (in 2014) for Comstock Park, Sparta Township and Alpine Township and then drop for the other districts. In Michigan the rate was seven percent compared to the United States at six percent.

He showed a slide that charted ethnicity rates among each of Rockford’s schools and the percentage of students per school that qualify for free lunch programs. He said rates of students who fill out forms for free lunch always drop when kids reach high school ages.

“High school students do not like to fill out forms for free lunch. They find easier ways to find food whereas young parents are more willing to fill out those forms. Older students borrow money from friends, borrow food from friends. They are afraid if they fill out the forms, others will know, even though you can’t tell when you’re swiping a card.”

School of Choice programs are provide interesting data. In Northview Schools, 35 percent of students are there from outside the district, “That’s the highest I know of.” Rockford, by comparison, is at ten percent.

He ended by noting that the next census is in 2020. “One thing we noticed from 20102009 is the birth rate declined several years in a row. It is only an amount of time before that catches up. It’s tricky with demographics.”