Kentwood Parent Academy

Grouping of Diverse People




ORGANIZATION / PROGRAM: Kentwood Public Schools / Kentwood Parent Academy

GRANT: $65,000 (65,000 future year) to engage business and cultural leaders in the Kentwood community to meet the needs of immigrant, refugee, and non-English speaking families in Kentwood Public Schools through the EL Parent Academy with the goal of building trust, fostering independence, and supporting their children’s success in school.


A conversation with Michael Zoerhoff on bringing people together to support the needs of immigrant, refugee, and non-English speaking school families.

Superintendent, Kentwood Public Schools

Who are the people who are directly served by your work and what are the greatest challenges they face?

The Academy supports parents of our English language learner (EL) students who face a variety of challenges being new to the United States. We host weekly sessions attended by nearly 50 KPS parents and family members—refugees, immigrants, and those whose native language is not English—to help them gain a better understanding of their new culture, understand the resources available to them, and be advocates for their children’s success in school. Since our district includes families that speak 60 distinct languages, communication is often their greatest challenge.

What innovative ideas do you bring to meeting the needs of those people?

First, we remove barriers to participation by providing translators, free child care, a free ride, and a free meal. Additionally, we work to understand what these families need, rather than assume that we know. Our recent formation of the EL Parent Academy Leadership Team is a good example of that. Last fall, before each class, we met with leaders in the EL communities and listened to what they consider the most important issues to address in future sessions. This allowed us to pull in knowledgeable people from the community to speak with intentionality and focus. Understanding the issues that are most important to our EL families increases the benefits we bring to students and their families

Who are the people within and outside your organization who are vital to achieving your mission and how do you collaborate to achieve your mission?

We could not achieve our mission without Liaison Linguistics translators who attend each session and are critical to sharing the communication before, during, and after each class. Many of the interpreters return week after week at their request, as they too value the work being done on behalf of our EL families.

We also rely on passionate Kentwood Public Schools’ staff to help us recruit and retain families, as well as the KPS Steering Committee—five, heavily invested, staff members whose roles are clearly defined roles and who provide diligent follow through on their work.

Child care workers are also vital to the success of the Academy. Each week they care for upwards of 30 elementary and middle-school-age children, freeing their parents to attend and focus on the program.

Perhaps the most valuable people that we work with, however, are our guest speakers—subject-matter experts, drawn from the community, who have the knowledge and empathy to remove barriers and provide a deeper understanding of the concepts we address.

Thinking beyond those who directly benefit from your work, who are the people who indirectly benefit from your work and how?

Because of the growth our parents achieve, everyone in the greater Kentwood and West Michigan communities benefits. Our parents are able to access needed support from local agencies, contribute to the local economy, and become productive community members. The success is so evident that we receive numerous requests from participating families to invite family members from outside the Kentwood community to join in future sessions. They clearly value the information shared and want their extended family and friends to have access to these insights, as well. When people want to share what they’ve learned, we believe it’s a clear indicator that the Academy is making a difference in the quality of their lives.

What role does fostering the civic engagement of people toward a common good play in achieving your organization’s long-term vision?

Kentwood Public Schools is committed to diversity, equity, and excellence in community education. Our families come from 90 different countries and speak 60 distinct languages, and it’s a guiding principle of the program that we’re respectful of their myriad beliefs, culture, and customs. If we’re successful in helping these families better navigate their day-to-day responsibilities, support their children’s education, become more civically engaged, and more aware of resources available to them within the community, they’ll feel more at home and engaged, their children will do better in school, and the larger community will benefit from the diversity, culture, and gifts these families bring to us all.

In 10 years I believe the people we serve will...

The parents who graduate from the Academy will become productive and contributing members of our community. They will know what support services are available to help them in achieving their goals. And they’ll be to take their new-found skills back to their own communities to help others. If EL students and families are more successful, the quality of life across West Michigan improves. Just last year, the Kentwood 49508 ZIP code was named the “hottest zip code” in America by—proof that a diverse community is what the next generation is looking for. We want to be a shining example of excellence as a diverse, inclusive school district.

MICHAEL ZOERHOFF has served as the superintendent of Kentwood Public Schools since 2013, and formerly served the district as a teacher, coach, assistant principal, middle school principal, and assistant superintendent for human resources. He serves on many leadership committees as well as the boards of the Kent School Services Network and the Kent County Family & Children’s Coordinating Council.

He and his wife Heather are active in the Kentwood community and their two children attend Kentwood Public Schools.


21 percent of KPS students are English language learners who were born in more than 90 countries and speak 60+ languages

Classes translated into no less than 11 languages during the session. Most translators are East Kentwood alums

“Just last year, the Kentwood 49508 ZIP code was named the ‘hottest ZIP code’ in America by—proof that a diverse community is what the next generation is looking for. We want to be a shining example of excellence as a diverse, inclusive school district.”