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Posted on Mon, Aug 26, 2013 : 5:57 a.m.

Former rivals, Ypsilanti students promote positive culture in newly merged district

By Amy Biolchini


It may be an unfamiliar chant for those in the Ypsilanti area now—but a group of dedicated students have been working to make the Grizzly mascot the symbol of a new identity for Ypsilanti Community Schools.

The product of Willow Run and Ypsilanti school districts, YCS will merge the former rivals together on the first day of class Sept. 3.

Several programs collaborated with YCS for a two-day student summit Thursday and Friday at the Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor, where teens from both former districts engaged in activities to help create a new identity for YCS.

Students wrote and recorded a rap theme song, crafted swag buttons, painted murals, recorded videos and shot portraits to use within YCS. With less than two weeks to go until the first day of school, positive energy abounded from the 20 students that attended the workshop.

Watch students record the end of the theme song:

Moving away from the former district’s old reputations and sometimes negative perceptions has been very important to the students involved in the program, said John Weiss, executive director of the Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor.

“These students that want to lead the culture change are not your traditional leaders,” Weiss said.

As an Ypsilanti resident, Weiss said he helped with the planning of the new district. The adults in the district are all hopeful and positive that YCS’ creation will mean great things for the quality of education that students receive.

Weiss said he’s worked to convey to students that it’s up to them to make the change they want to see in the new school year. The projects students have engaged in will set the culture in their own words, Weiss said.

Geairis Vinston, 16, attended Ypsilanti New Tech High School last year. When he and his friends learned of the consolidation last spring, he said there was some initial negativity in conversations about the next school year.

Historically, there has been sports-motivated rivalry and name calling from all sides, Geairis said.

“We just didn’t like each other at all,” Geairis said.

Geairis said he’s excited for the first day of school and to bring a positive attitude to the hallways. Most of his friends are excited about the change now, he said.

Making new friends with other students before school started through the Neutral Zone program was “crucial,” Geairis said, “so that when you get there you won’t have to rely on old friends.”

Latearia Johnson, 15, was a sophomore at Willow Run High School last year. This year, she’ll be entering Ypsilanti Community High School as a junior.

At first, Latearia said she thought the beginning of a new school year in a consolidated district would be “chaos.”

People thought there might be fights because of the former rivalries, she said—but now that’s changed for Latearia. After meeting some new people at the Neutral Zone, Latearia said she’s ready for anything.

Latearia was a part of the group that put together a theme rap song for YCS, which includes positive motivational messages that Latearia said she hopes students keep in mind this year.

Bright Futures, the Safe & Supportive Schools program collaborated with the Neutral Zone to host the two-day student engagement summit. The program follows months of previous sessions that many of the students had been involved in.

Several students in Willow Run schools had been working with the Neutral Zone and the Safe & Supportive Schools program to improve the climate in the school last year. When the formal announcement came of the district’s consolidation, the students wanted to pursue programs to ease the unification process, Weiss said.

Students from both Willow Run and Ypsilanti high schools swapped schools for a day, and have been working with the Bright Futures after school program at Eastern Michigan University as well.

Amy Biolchini is the K-12 education reporter for Reach her at (734) 623-2552, or on Twitter.



Wed, Aug 28, 2013 : 8:49 p.m.

I wish these districts luck with their merger. We did this ten years ago and have developed a strong school community. Initially the students did have a hard time being classmates instead of rivals -- but part of this was because so many parents had been against the merger to begin with. It took roughly two to two and a half years before ALL the students felt they were Twin Valley Students instead of Whitingham or Wilmington students. Everything was different from the name of the school to the mascot to the school colors. These decisions helped to move the school forward as Twin Valley instead of as a cobbled together district. It was very important that many students, as well as parents, community members and faculty members helped to develop the important decisions from the Mission Statement to the mascot. I'm sure the Ypsilanti Community School merger will be successful and flourish! Congratulations on the move from us in New England!


Mon, Aug 26, 2013 : 1:43 p.m.

I hope these students read this an know how PROUD I am of them, as a taxpayer in the district! I was so ashamed of the hateful rhetoric here a few months back in regard to this merger and everyone's personal agendas. These young people give me hope for the future of the district...and for our country. Bless you, young people for giving me back hope in the future!

Lisa D

Mon, Aug 26, 2013 : 1:04 p.m.

This is a wonderful project that will help build bridges and create positive, cohesive community. Bravo to to youth leaders that took part of this effort and to EMU' Bright Future program and the Neutral Zone for sharing their terrific talents, space and youth development expertise. Lisa Dengiz


Mon, Aug 26, 2013 : 12:55 p.m.

It is nice to see the students engaging in efforts to make this merger a success. Congratulations to those young people who have taken the lead in making the best of the situation!! You probably could teach some adults about the spirit of cooperation and working for the best interests of the group as a whole!!


Mon, Aug 26, 2013 : 11:28 a.m.

I know from experiences that it is frequently the adults and not the students that struggle with building school community when schools merge. I hope that the district provides the support and time needed to help staff with all of the practical and emotional challenges that are a normal outcome in this kind of situation. A healthy staff will build a cohesive school climate where learning and behavioral expectations are clear for students. I look forward to hearing many success stories about the new district.