By Erin Albanese
David Britten remembers standing in the lunchroom at Lee Middle/High School. He was the new middle school principal after leaving an elementary-principal post at Wayland-Union Schools Schools in 2002. He looked around at the group of rowdy teenagers and thought, “What did I do? Why did I leave Wayland, where I enjoyed the job and the school and the kids?
“I didn’t understand the culture these kids come from,” he recalled. “I felt a little panicky about it.”
But Britten didn’t run away. He attached himself to the class of 2008, seventh-graders at the time, whom he called a group of funny “pain in the rears.” Among them was the first undocumented immigrant student Britten had ever been aware of in his school — a bright, high-achieving girl who already worried she wouldn’t be able to attend college.
“That group helped me understand better what was going on,” he said.
Bonds began to grow between the retired Army officer-turned-principal and students who at first expected his style of discipline to include pushups and laps.
“Within no time I was like, ‘I wouldn’t change these kids for the world.'”
Instead, Britten has spent the past 15 years working to change the world for them — and to help them, one day, change the world.
Britten, 62, is a paradox. One moment he says he doesn’t like people, yet he’s thrown himself full-throttle into a career of helping improve the lives of some of the most vulnerable children in Kent County. He loves technology, saying he prefers to do things in anonymity on a computer, and he plans to spend a lot of time with a new robot he’s ordered. But he looks giddy at the idea of bringing his robot in to show students.
He’s admittedly cynical, but has paved the way in reforming education in his district from the ground up while shedding light on the positives in the community.
He’s a military man whose own life was shaped by the regimen and discipline of serving his country, but he is a true Lee Rebel at heart.
Where He Was Supposed to Be
Britten is stepping down June 30 after nine years as superintendent and a total of 15 years working in the district. The Board of Education recently hired Kevin Polston, principal of Lakeshore Middle School in Grand Haven Public Schools, as new superintendent, beginning July 1.
Britten has spent many days, from dawn to dusk, leading teachers in a way that builds community, and battling state and national policy he believes is increasing inequity in education. He is present in the school buildings and athletic fields attending student programs and events on days, nights and weekends.
The demands have taken a toll on his energy and fitness, but he said he never wanted to give less for the students. Until his last day on the job, he wants to be there.
“I feel like that’s where I’m supposed to be. If I’m not there to do that, why did I choose this career?”
Lee High School civics teacher Brian Cahoon said Britten’s involvement has even extended to cooking for students at band camp and helping to chaperone 30-plus seniors on their senior trip to Florida.
“I believe Dave has touched the district by his dedication to, not only his job, but the Lee community as a whole,” Cahoon said. “I think one would be hard-pressed to find a superintendent who is as visible, and often an active participant in a wide range of student activities.”
Lee High School science teacher Steve Rierson provided a short list of Britten’s typical activities: “On any given day, Mr. Britten can be observed eating with kids, walking through hallways, subbing in classrooms, attending sporting events, interacting with parents and faculty throughout the district, even traveling to Lansing in hopes of changing policy at the state level.”
A Hometown Boy
Britten, who lives in Cutlerville, spent several childhood years in the Godfrey-Lee community, frequenting neighborhood stores and playing in the woodsy area near the Godfrey-Lee Early Childhood Center (where he and his staff have recently opened an outdoor learning lab.) He knows the area’s nooks and crannies, the stories of each building and street, the background of the schools and the people who have impacted them over the decades.
“I’m a homeboy who likes local history,” he said.
With more time on his hands, he plans to immerse himself in that history by writing a book about the Godfrey-Lee community. An outspoken advocate for social justice, he also plans to study and speak out against issues affecting the country and areas like Godfrey-Lee: the growing economic gap, segregation and political gerrymandering.
He plans to visit relatives he hasn’t seen in decades and, if all else fails, simply enjoy time with his wife, Penny, whose hobbies include photography and horseback riding.
“If I just carry her camera and saddle around for the rest of my life, that’s fine. I owe her.”
Britten has played a big role in the district during a pivotal era in its history. During his time as superintendent, Godfrey-Lee has grown from 1,600 to nearly 2,000 students, with its Hispanic population increasing from 32 to 78 percent. In the once solid blue-collar neighborhood where many residents worked at General Motors, more than 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches.
Britten offers some historical reference: The district dipped to around 850 students in the ’90s as the community aged. After 2000, many immigrant families began moving in with large families and establishing roots.
For them, Britten and his staff work hard to make the schools the center of the community.
“One of the things I like about this community, and which seems to have increased since I’ve been here, is there seems to be a growing interest in the community from the community members,” he said, noting the draw of affordable housing, new neighborhood groups and a decrease in transiency. “This is Wyoming’s only true walkable community.
“We are interested in the community being a part of us,” he added. “If we are strong the community is strong.”
Pushing for Education Reform
His tenure has also been a time of school funding challenges, increased high-stakes testing, and other threats to public education. For these things and many more, Britten has been an outspoken advocate for improving education by getting to the root of problems. He never holds back in calling out bad policy or politicians who seem to have interests other than children in mind.
“If we are only focused on the test scores,” he asserted, “we have already lost the war.”
To improve his district, Britten embarked on a huge human-centered design project, sealing a $250,000 Steelcase grant, to study the true — as opposed to perceived — needs of families in the district. The end goal is education reform, getting students away from the 20th-century education model, truly engaged in their learning and preparing them for jobs of the future with the necessary skills. The work will continue under Polston.
“Dave has never strayed far from the needs of the community,” said Lee Middle High School science teacher Vlad Borza. “Despite the educational woes and rigors of the state requirements, he has remained an advocate for the needs of our community and bringing equity to a district in need of extra support.
“He is unapologetic in fighting for the needs of students and families, whether it is by pursuing a competitive technology program or advocating for the legal protection of those in our district. It is evident that his focus has always remained on their needs.”
From Factory Worker to U.S. Army Officer to Educator
Britten was born in Grand Rapids, the second of seven siblings. At age 4, he moved to a new Wyoming subdivision at 36th Street and Burlingame Avenue SW. In kindergarten, he attended East Newhall Elementary (later East Elementary School, in Wyoming Public Schools) before going to Holy Name of Jesus Catholic School in first grade, when his family moved to the Godfrey-Lee area.
He attended Godfrey-Lee schools through his freshman year when he moved back to the Wyoming Public Schools neighborhood, where he attended Rogers High School until he graduated in 1973.
He enrolled in Grand Valley State University and worked at Keebler Company, eventually dropping out of college until he was laid off from the factory job. One day in 1974 he and a friend, on a whim, decided to enlist in the National Guard. His friend wasn’t accepted, but Britten was.
He was called back to Keebler and worked there while also serving as a reservist. By 1977 he noticed a lot of his Rogers High School classmates were graduating college. Britten was dissatisfied.
“I thought, ‘I’m not going to do this factory stuff the rest of my life. … Standing there watching Pop-Tarts come out of a cutter all night long was just not what I want to do.”
He re-enrolled at GVSU, and recognized Penny, who had attended Godfrey-Lee, during his first day of class. He “stalked her for two days” before she asked him what he wanted. He wanted a date, and the rest is history. They married in 1980 and have one son, David.
After earning an education degree, Britten began teaching at Muskegon Catholic Central High School, but he began an active duty tour two years later. That was the beginning of a military career, from which he retired in 1996. While in the service, he earned a degree in educational leadership.
Lured Back by Schools
Soon after retiring, he was asked to apply for the elementary principal position in Wayland and got the job. Six years later he was asked to apply for the Lee Middle School principal position. He was tapped for the superintendent position in 2008, a time of turmoil in the district, when there was poor morale between the administration and staff. Britten didn’t want the job, but feared no one else would step up that could rebuild trust.
The results of his work are evident in his staff’s comments.
Britten has spent the last days of the school year with students, watching them play during field day; checking out high school seniors’ capstone projects on careers they are interested in; riding the Millennium Force roller coaster at Cedar Point amusement park with band students; attending a community event led by Blandford Nature Center focused on increasing the owl population. As always, where students and staff gather, he’s there.
He’s a voice, a presence, a fighter for what Godfrey-Lee students need to be successful in the country he served.
Just a hometown boy who likes history.
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