Since its founding in the 1920s in the neighborhood bearing its name, Ottawa Hills High School has educated plenty of distinguished students. They include former U.S. District Attorney Patrick Miles Jr., renowned gospel singer Marvin Sapp, and famous athletes such as boxing champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. and former Detroit Tiger Mickey Stanley.
Ottawa has also seen great changes, including a move in the early 1970s to its current site on Rosewood Avenue SE as well as enrollment declines.
Now more big changes are happening at Ottawa, from a major revamping of its academic offerings and an early college program to a new principal, Kaushik Sarkar.
All are part of a planned $17 million renovation and ambitious initiative for the school, announced last spring by Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal in her State of the Schools speech.
“This is where I say, we do not turn this district around until we’ve flipped Ottawa Hills High School,” Neal said then.
Sarkar was chosen to lead that effort. He succeeds Rodney Lewis, now GRPS director of secondary education.
Coming from Kalamazoo Public Schools, where he was a leading math teacher and adviser to the prestigious Kappa League for African-American and other students, Sarkar brings leadership and relationship skills to the role, says Assistant Superintendent Ron Gorman.
“Kaushik is incredibly skilled at recognizing quality teaching and learning,” Gorman says. “This is a tremendous benefit to our school district, as our core business is classroom instruction.”
Career Academies Planned
With a little under 500 students, in a school built for 2,000, Ottawa is now the smallest of the district’s four main high schools – although it grew by nearly 50 students this fall after previous years of decline.
Another encouraging trend: The school’s four-year graduation rates have improved, rising to 68 percent in 2015-16 from 55 percent the previous year. And plans are underway to reconfigure Ottawa into half a dozen specialized programs, possibly including technology, homeland security, manufacturing, cosmetology, hospitality and tourism, arts and entertainment, and communications and marketing.
Ottawa also started the district’s first early college program this fall, in which students spend an extra year in high school while earning an associate degree from Grand Rapids Community College. Openings for 50 sophomores are available this year.
Neal says the new mix of programs aims to provide many pathways to success for students, whether on the college-career track or in trades and the arts.
“I’ve committed to Ottawa,” she says. “This is my stake in the ground.”
Sarkar says he wants to help students find their passion at Ottawa, and inspire them to aim high and far once they graduate.
“I just want them to be in a frame of mind that, hey, there’s more than just Grand Rapids,” he says.
His mission is well-suited to Ottawa, where nearly 80 percent of students are African American and more than 10 percent Latino. He has long been active in exposing students to higher education, particularly students of color.
Realizing A Long-held Dream
For Sarkar, the post fulfills a dream he’s had since he was a junior at Kalamazoo Central High School, inspired by a charismatic teacher/adviser, Mark Hill. “I said ‘Before age 30, I want to be an assistant principal or principal,’” Sarkar says. He is 29.
At Kalamazoo Central, Hill took him and other African-American students on a tour of historically black colleges and universities in the South. There he saw black students taking classes – and black professors teaching them -- far beyond the mostly white confines of West Michigan schools.
The experience proved to be a turning point in his education and his career.
“It was those trips that showed me, ‘OK, even though I do have solid academic grades, maybe college IS the place for me,’” Sarkar says in his office at Ottawa. “The motivation is not there until you can visualize yourself in those seats.”
Sarkar went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in education, and later a master’s in educational leadership, at Michigan State University. He taught high school math for three years in Atlanta Public Schools, then for a year at an Atlanta school in the national KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) network of nonprofit public charter schools. Following a brief stint as a KIPP assistant principal in Chicago, he came back home to Kalamazoo Central, where he taught math the past two years.
'I just want them to be in a frame of mind that, hey, there's more than just Grand Rapids.' – Kaushik Sarkar, principal, Ottawa Hills High School
There he started a new chapter of the National Kappa League affiliated with his college fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi -- the same youth leadership development and college-prep program that Sarkar’s mentor led years before. Sarkar took them on tours of historically black colleges, giving them the same exposure to high-achieving African Americans he’d had in high school.
At one of those colleges, Sarkar heard an admissions official say something that’s stuck with him ever since: “You cannot be what you cannot see.”
Time to Hit Refresh
He aims to apply that motto at Ottawa, where he hopes to start another chapter of the Kappa League. He’s already taken a group of 17 students to MSU, where they visited dorms and the basketball court at Breslin Center. As they left campus, Sarkar recalls, one student said, “This is the place for me.”
He hopes other students are similarly motivated by visiting other schools, including a tour of historically black colleges next spring. Fundraising is underway to take two busloads of 30 to 40 students each to Florida, North and South Carolina.
Along with the new career-track and early college programs, Sarkar hopes the trips will contribute to a “refreshing” of Ottawa Hills High School – with a big emphasis on school culture and spirit.
“Academics is one piece,” he says, “but just that joy of going to school for the experience -- almost like a mini-college experience in high school. That freedom, that liberty, that comes from increased responsibility.”