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Back to school! A conversation with Muskegon Superintendent Matthew Cortez on the upcoming year

Major renovations across the district including an updated elementary school, new middle school, and high school overhaul, plus the installation of STEAM labs—MPS aims to set the bar for educational excellence on the Lakeshore for years to come.

Daniel Boothe: Joining us now in the WGVU newsroom via phone, the superintendent of Muskegon Public Schools, Superintendent Matthew Cortez. Mr. Cortez, how are you, sir? Good afternoon to you.

Matthew Cortez: Pretty good. Good afternoon, Daniel. How is everything going on your end?

DB: No complaints, sir. It's, it's summertime. It's Tuesday, August 22nd, and we say it every year. Where did summer go? You know, here we are. First day of school is just around the corner. My kids are packing up the backpacks and getting everything ready ourselves. You know, most people don't know this, Superintendent, but the first day of school is surprisingly a big deal in education. It's the culmination of months and months of planning. How excited are you and your staff to welcome back students?

MC: Well, for us at Muskegon, we are extremely excited. We are debuting an elementary school that is recently completely renovated because of our bond issue as well as our main high school building has been completely renovated You're still going to see construction going on in the district, but this is like exciting for us It's the first time we'll ever have air conditioning throughout a whole building in the district.

DB: Wow, that's amazing.

MC: It's creating the environment that our kids not only need but what they really deserve and It's just it's extremely exciting, so many new things on the horizon for us and looking at different courses and experimentation and trying to get it so that kids can drive what we do because that's who we're here to help learn. And if we can teach them the way they learn, we're stronger for it.

DB: It has to be exciting to see the culmination of that bond money finally at work and to see the renovations and the new school. Because I remember when the bond passed, talking to you then, and it was all just a vision, but then to actually see it to have bricks laid, that's got to be a great feeling.

MC: Well, and that, it is a tremendous feeling, but it's a community pride as well. I mean, two-thirds of our community voted yes on both bonds. That is extraordinary, and now they're beginning to see it. You can now see the new middle school on the old hospital site. You can see it taking shape and form and getting bricked and windowed. And you can see it in our buildings. This year we have Marquette Elementary is located at our Nelson building because we are renovating all of Marquette for the year. And then our Oakview building is, has relocated Oakview Elementary is going out of the Moon building this year because we're doing the same at Moon. So I have two more elementary schools that are under major construction this year. It is, it's, this is a game changer for our district. It is tremendous.

DB: Talking with the Superintendent of Muskegon Public Schools, Matthew Cortez, go Big Reds, here on WGVU-FM. As you and your staff superintendent game planned this year, is there an overall theme or a kind of mission statement that you hope defines the academic year?

MC: There definitely is. It's actually, we're launching it on Thursday with our staff first. Last year, our phrase was “Better Together.” And this year, it's kind of like a growth of four words. And it's: Joy, Connect, Growth, and Success. So by embracing joy, it allows us to connect to our kids better, which in turn, our relationship with those students allows us to have them grow, which then once you're growing, you're finding success. So that's our theme for this year.

DB: And I would assume that was my next question, the message to students and parents this year that you want to communicate. You kind of just said it, but I'll ask you again, what is the message to parents and the students as they get ready to pack up the backpacks and lunches and return to the classroom?

MC: Well, I think the huge message here for all of our parents and even our community members, for our parents and our students, we want to wrap as many adults in a relationship with your child and learning as we possibly can. So we are making core changes in the way we approach things, in the way we approach education, in order to build those stronger and make more lasting relationships as students go through our system. For our community, we are always open for our community to come in, take a look around. We want to do some public tours and things of that nature as we wrap up the entire job sites. And we really want the community to come back and continue to embrace us as strongly as they have because it is outstanding to see a community so dedicated to the education of their kids, of their children.

DB: If you're just joining us— talking with the Superintendent of Muskegon Public Schools, Matthew Cortez, as first day of school is what, is it a week from today?

MC: Actually it's Monday.

DB: Monday. There you have it. Monday.

MC: So that is going to be August 28th and that is going to be a half day in the morning.

DB: Great, great. So just a couple days of summer left for the students, although your staff is already in the building, I would imagine. You know, superintendent, yeah, so many professions took a major hit during the pandemic. Education certainly was no exception. Talk about your staff. Are there open positions and areas of real need right now? I know in previous years, school bus drivers topped that list. What is the need right now?

MC: Well, I think we have need for a few teachers still. And some of that is in specialty areas, probably in special education. We have a few elementary openings. The other thing is, you know, you said it, custodial maintenance and our bus drivers, those are things. But one of the huge needs for us right now is lunchroom help. And so helping our students through their lunchtime, through their recess, moving through the building, things of that nature, it is a very, very critical point for us as a district. Because if students come to your class with an empty stomach and they're hungry, they're not able to concentrate on learning. So we need some people. It is paid positions. They're all listed online. But we really need somebody that wants to work a few hours a day. It's not a huge commitment. It's not a ton of money. But the reward of working with these kids and helping them to develop and helping them to become the young adults that we need is, it's outstanding.

DB: Yeah, you know, that's great to hear. It made me immediately think of my own mom, who's in her late 70s, who might love a job like that, you know, and getting to be around kids and giving her a reason to get outdoors and to go somewhere.

MC: You can even, she can even volunteer if she wants and join our grandma and grandpa club.

DB: Oh, wow sure.

MC: And so they go right into the classroom and help the teacher and build that relationship with that teacher. I have some that have been together like 10 years. Same grandma same teacher in the same room. So it's a tremendous opportunity for everybody if they would like to get a little bit more involved and help our district out

DB: Yeah, and those positions are online, as you said. That's, that's good to hear, Superintendent. Thank you for that.

MC: Yeah.

DB: New COVID variant made its way to Michigan. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services recommending kids are fully vaccinated, not just against COVID, but just fully vaccinated to stay safe this upcoming year. I know everyone is vaccine exhausted these days. We're all tired of talking about it. But what does Muskegon Public Schools recommend for parents to keep their kids safe and healthy this fall?

MC: Our recommendation is that we follow what the health department in Muskegon County tells us to do. Because they're the experts on this. It's not us as schools. Everybody knows there's a state law around vaccines and things of that nature. But I would strongly encourage your parent to understand what their child needs and how they feel about it. And then consider, you know, we will be communicating out what the health department, you know, requires of us and it recommends for students and I can tell you that we have a community here that I think really gets some great service from some free clinics like Hackley Community Care and Health West among others and anything that they need we can help them get together with that resource.

DB: Thank you for that. Some really exciting news came out this past winter and it bares talking about it again because it's so cool. Steam Labs launched in Muskegon Public Schools last year, I think in February. Now it's the new school year. They're going to be fully operational. Tell us a little bit about that and how the Steam Labs kind of sets your district a little apart from other districts here in West Michigan.

MC: Well it is something huge for us and this is a gift of the bond, right? Instead of just STEM, where it's science, technology, education, or engineering and mathematics, we do STEAM. We add arts to it. We add the fine arts. And so we have our fully functioning STEAM lab inside of Bunker Elementary. And when we're renovating over at Oakview and Marquette this year, we will be putting STEAM labs in their buildings as well. And the idea is this project-based learning style. bringing things forward to students that engages them, that gets them out of their seat, that gets them outside. You know, we're also looking at naming themes at each of the buildings. And I know that Bunker, we're looking at more of an aquatic theme. And Marquette, we're really close to the nature preserve or the gully that people call it. So we're looking at more of a nature theme. And at Oakview, we're still trying to make decisions. for anywhere from aeronautical to engineering to entrepreneurship to other things. So once we start to theme those buildings and get that out there, I just I want everyone to come in take a look at the STEAM Labs. Come in and experience it. This technology is what our students need to learn right now because it's what they're going to face when they complete their education with us and go to their next chapter in life.

DB: Superintendent Matthew Cortez, Muskegon Public Schools on behalf of everyone here at WGVU, Go Big Reds and wishing you a great school year. Thanks so much for the time. We look forward to talking to you again in the future.

MC: Okay, can I do one more thing?

DB: Yes, sir.

MC: Okay, this Friday from three to five, we have our Return to Learn Fair that is on our Central High School campus and all the community is invited. We're going to have services out there, free food, other experiences. And then afterward, we'll have our first football game at 7 o'clock against Rockford. So let's go Big Reds!

DB: Thanks again, superintendent. Thank you for that. I appreciate it. Have a, have a wonderful day.

MC: You too. Bye bye.

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