Tag Archives: Erin Albanese

School News Network: Settling conflict by settling minds with connective art

Student-made mandala supports Restorative Justice

By Erin Albanese School News Network


With colorful petals radiating from a bright orange center, the mandala Circle of Art rug represents the universe and all its connectivity.


For members of Wyoming High School’s National Art Honor Society, it’s also a way of connecting with a program right in their school that helps reduce conflict and unite people.


Sinai Salvador, Cecilia Medina and Bekah Luce created the mandala Circle of Art to symbolize restorative justice

NAHS members and juniors Sinai Salvador, Cecilia Medina and Bekah Luce created the rug at the request of Marilyn Booker, who facilitates restorative justice circles at the high school. Booker wanted a symbol that complemented her practice, and students came up with the design. They showcased the rug at the district’s recent Fine Arts Festival.


Restorative justice, an outreach of the Grand Rapids-based nonprofit Dispute Resolution Center of West Michigan that started at the high school last school year, is a non-punitive, conflict-resolution program that helps students solve differences using trained mediators.


Connecting, Uniting, Restoring

In restorative circles, students who are having conflicts tell each other through guided conversation with Booker what’s on their minds. They hold something, like a squishy ball, to indicate their turn to speak. The goal is to reduce suspensions and address harmful behaviors in a therapeutic way. It has been successful and was expanded to the junior high this school year.


Booker lays the rug on the floor in the middle of the circles to give students a focal point if they aren’t quite ready to meet eye-to-eye.


“We made the rug to help relieve anxiety with these groups,” said Bekah. “A lot of times the kids don’t feel comfortable and don’t know where to look.”


The circle is a universal and eternal symbol seen in many aspects of life: the sun, the moon, the earth and the universe. Conflict is also a universal and eternal issue in society, Booker said: “In a circle, there is no disconnect. We are all connected in some way, shape, or form. … Part of doing circles is every voice is important.


“We are restoring kids instead of pushing them out,” she said.


Wyoming is a very diverse district, the fourth most diverse in the state, according to the website, Niche. In that context, Sinai explained the depth she sees in the piece.


“You can think of all the colors we connected in the mandala rug as all the races that are connected in our school society,” Sinai said. “That’s why it’s used in the restorative program. It gets everyone together.”


She sees the school’s diversity as a plus for understanding, noting “we all get along. It doesn’t matter where you come from, we all understand that we have different customs, but we all come together because we are all equal.


Restorative justice facilitator Marilyn Booker (far left) hosts a Restorative Circle, with the mandala rug in the center, with, from left, students Kiara Kornoelje, Ashley Elliott, Makenna Vanderstolp and Shay Sees

“It’s a way for the school environment to flourish. That’s also why we picked the flower.”


Art and Its Many Connections

Wyoming High’s National Art Honor Society, which includes 21 students, focuses on creating art that connects with the greater community, school community and with themselves, said adviser and art teacher Robin Gransow-Higley.


In 1978, the National Art Education Association began the NAHS program to inspire and recognize students who have shown an outstanding ability and interest in art, though it’s open to all students.


Wyoming NAHS students organized the district’s recent Fine Arts Festival, which included works from those in grades K-12, plus choir and theater performances, demonstrations by various clubs, face-painting and other activities. Students are also creating a mural representing student athletics and activities.


The club aims to encircle the community it its own way, through art, Higley said.


“They connect with the greater community, school community and with themselves,” she said.

Wyoming Public School District seeks public input on bond request

Would not raise property taxes, officials say

By Erin Albanese

School News Network


In eyeing the needs of the district and planning for the next 30 years, administrators are considering a November bond request that would not raise property taxes.


But first, they are seeking input from parents, teachers, students and community members concerning what facility improvements they would support –– and which ones they want most.


Parents and staff members were emailed links to fill out by the end of January, and a postcard with information about the online survey is being mailed to residents. The board could vote to approve ballot language in late spring.


Voters will be presented with a millage proposal that won’t result in an increase in taxes because existing debt will be expiring. The new millage request will be for the same number of mills or fewer than the mills saved from the expiring debt. A new levy would generate some dollars in 2018, with the balance to come in 2022, to fund upgrades and improvements at its aging facilities.


Because voters rejected two attempts to pass major bond requests in August and November 2013, the district is taking a long-term approach to the plan. If voters approved a request in November, the sale of bonds in spring 2018 would generate about $20 million. When existing debt expires in 2021 and 2022, the district could sell the remainder of the bonds to generate approximately another $45 million, said Matt Lewis, assistant superintendent of finance and administrative services.


The multi-series arrangement allows flexibility, Lewis said. “We can control the amount of the sale so we don’t raise taxes.”


That’s key, said Superintendent Tom Reeder, because “We said we would not return to the public if it would cost them any more in taxes.”


Reeder noted that a favorable market has made it possible to move ahead with a new request. “We said, ‘If the money is available without raising taxes next year, could we start the projects that much earlier?’ ”


The majority of bond funds generated in 2018 would most likely be invested at Wyoming High School, at 1350 Prairie Parkway. “It is the building with the most needs,” Reeder said. “We want the high school to be the flagship of the community.”


Some district needs have changed since the 2013 bond requests failed. The district moved forward with securing school entrances. A 10-year sinking fund levy passed in May — also with no tax increase — generates about $400,000 a year for maintenance such as roof and parking lot repairs.


The survey questions gauge community opinions on immediate and future needs in the district, which enrolls about 4,300 students. It asks for input concerning the following:

  • enhancing landscaping and elementary playgrounds
  • improving curb appeal of buildings
  • upgrades to the fine arts center located at the junior high
  • adding a new fine arts center on the high school campus
  • upgrades to outdoor athletic facilities
  • adding artificial turf at the high school stadium
  • upgrading indoor athletic facilities
  • updating labs to support science, engineering, technology and math
  • dedicated music and art space at the elementary schools
  • improvements to parking and traffic flow at schools
  • adding windows to allow for more natural light
  • technology
  • grade configuration at schools

In moving forward, the district will form a planning committee involving parents, staff and community members. Community forums will be scheduled.


Give your feedback here.

Banking on Parent Educators, Parents As Educators

PNC Grant Helps Fund More Outreach

Ivan and mom Careni Solis get their library cards
Ivan and mom Careni Solis get their library cards

by Erin Albanese   

School News Network


In a room designated for storytelling at the Wyoming branch of the Kent District Library, Ethel Rodriguez spoke in Spanish with Careni and Joel Solis about ways to best help their son, Ivan, 3, and daughter, Melanie, 5 months, stay on schedule developmentally.


The meeting involved the whole Solis family. Rodriguez, a Kent ISD Bright Beginnings parent educator, led activities that had Ivan clapping gleefully, Melanie smiling toothlessly, mom and dad beaming with pride, and sisters Paola, a sixth-grader, and Alondra, a fourth-grader, joining the fun.


Rodriguez has worked with the family since September. She focuses on helping Hispanic children, from infancy to kindergarten, and their parents. At the library, she taught Careni how to give Melanie a baby massage, beneficial for bonding and emotional development, she explained. She read the family a story, and led a game focused on large-motor skill development for Ivan that had everyone hopping like frogs and galloping like horses.She named colors with Ivan, “verde, green” and counted dinosaurs in a book with him, “uno, dos, tres, quatro, cinco, seis, siete.”


Bright Beginnings Parent Educators are trained and certified in the Parents As Teachers evidence- and research-based curriculum, which they use to help parents learn to teach their children at home. Services include home visits, playgroups, developmental screenings and a network of resources.


Reaching Out to Hispanic Families

Serving Spanish-speaking families often requires going the extra mile. Rodriguez, who is from Peru and is fluent in English and Spanish, is working with 19 Hispanic families from Godfrey-Lee and Godwin Heights Public Schools, districts with a high percentage of those students. She makes twice-monthly home visits and hosts special library sessions that end with family members getting their own library cards. Rodriguez’s salary is partially funded through a $10,000 Grow Up Great grant from PNC Bank.


Jan Sabin, parent educator coordinator for Bright Beginnings, said Rodriguez and other Spanish-speaking parent educators go above and beyond their job responsibilities. They translate for families, make phone calls and help with paperwork. “There are significant extra hours needed for serving families,” Sabin said.


Dad Joel Solis catches the baby’s attention
Dad Joel Solis catches the baby’s attention

There are many immigrant families like the Solises whose children are starting school in the U.S. According to the 2015 report Immigrant and Refugee Workers in the Early Childhood Field, by the Migration Policy Institute, “The growth of the U.S. 0-5 population is becoming increasingly diverse. Homes in the U.S. with children ages 5 and under who have at least one immigrant parent now account for all the net population growth of children in that age group in the U.S.”


Overall, Rodriguez’s work is helping the Solises and other Hispanic families have better access to what they need. “I think through programs like Bright Beginnings they can have the opportunity to access and accomplish their goal of why they came here,” she said. “They came here to have better opportunities.”


Stories, Questions and Books

Joel, who works at a packing company, and Careni, a stay-at-home mother, are emigrants from Guatemala. They said they see benefits of Bright Beginnings for their children. Melanie shows signs of crawling, Careni said, perhaps from increased time spent on her tummy. Ivan asks lots of questions, makes up stories about dinosaurs, has learned to hold a pencil correctly and loves to do the “homework” Rodriguez assigns, Joel said.


Melanie watches “Baby Faces” during her baby massage
Melanie watches “Baby Faces” during her baby massage

Rodriguez also puts books into children’s hands and homes. With their new library cards, the Solises can check out books whenever they want, a practice hoped to become a regular activity.”Since you have been coming to my house, I see Ivan is more interested in preschool. Now he wants to go to school,” Joel said to Rodriguez in Spanish. “He used to scribble; now he is more patient and is drawing more specific things by using his imagination.”


See more at: http://www.schoolnewsnetwork.org/index.php/2016-17/banking-better-parenting/#sthash.e7p1o24S.dpuf

Custodial Job Perk: Connecting with Students

By Erin Albanese  

School News Network


In a world where too many people just “talk the talk,” Fred Cox “walks the walk” — a fast stride around the cafeteria, through entryways, down hallways, in classrooms and outside on snowy sidewalks.


While keeping his speedy stride, Cox cleans: picking up trash, wiping tables and shoveling foot-deep snow on winter days. The custodian, called Fred by students and teachers alike at Duncan Lake Middle School, spends school days from 5:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. taking care of the large building that enrolls about 500 sixth- through eighth-graders.


Cox’s quickness shows during the three lunch periods when students enter the cafeteria en masse, complete with the quirks and antics of middle schoolers. On a recent morning, one student needs Cox to retrieve 50 cents from the trashcan; Cox uses a broom handle to fix a handful of drop ceiling tiles knocked off center by wayward balls; a group of boys starts a dice game to win pencils provided by Cox; and several more ask his help with one thing or another.

All in a Day’s Work

“How was your snow day, Fred?” seventh-grader Jack Simons asks during lunch on a Tuesday following a Monday when schools closed because of snow.


“It was fantastic,” Cox answers without a hint of sarcasm. “I spent four hours clearing snow from all around the school exits.”


Cox handles the rambunctious crew with ease, moving seamlessly from sixth- to seventh- to eighth-grade lunch periods, passing out high fives and fist bumps, engaging in conversations and sharing laughs. And his way of connecting with them has caught the attention of staff and students.


“The kids are great,” said Cox, who started this year as full-time custodian after working part-time at Caledonia High School since 2007. “I’m blessed every day, because if you can’t come here and smile, something is definitely wrong.”


Sixth-grader Ethan Dyksterhouse grabs a rag and helps Cox wipe tables after lunch. “Most kids get to know him,” Ethan said. “He’s always positive, giving high fives and having fun.”


Cox worked as an assistant manager at Steelcase for 15 years and then at other companies, doing building and grounds and custodial work. His daughter, Samantha Cox, and late stepson, David Marlink, graduated from Caledonia High School.


At school he’s known for his ability to do custodial and maintenance work, for which Principal Ryan Graham said he’s very grateful.

Custodian Fred Cox takes time to get to know students while he works


“Kids and staff see his hard work ethic. When he sets out to do things, he’s on it,” Graham said. “He works his tail off.”


But more than that, it’s the way students gravitate to Cox that people notice. “Kids who aren’t the jocks or ‘all A’ kids, they respond to Fred,” Graham said.


Cox fixes what’s broken, helps students open jammed lockers, hangs banners, shovels and cleans. He said he works hard to meet the needs of staff and students with “whatever they need me to do.”


His manner is humble. “I try to do everything, jack-of-all-trades master of none…” he said with a laugh.


Food service worker Lori Hoholik said she sees how students light up around Cox.


“I love watching Fred and the way he interacts with kids,” she said. “He’s so good with them. He talks to them. If he sees a kid sitting alone, he goes up to them. He’s always upbeat.”


Little Things

Students note the small ways Cox helps brighten their day. “He gave me M&Ms,” said seventh-grader Kaitlynn Robotham. “I spilled my whole lunch and Fred cleaned it up.”


Added seventh-grader Reagan Weiss: “Once I lost my lunchbox and all the food in it. He bought me a lunch, found my lunchbox and washed it out.”


“He always waves at us in the hallway,” said seventh-grader Lindy Bujak.


Cox treats students with respect and they seem to like that. He calls them “sir” or “young lady.” “He’s very polite,” said seventh-grader Colin Marckwardt. “He talks openly to kids and that’s really cool about him.”


Graham said the respect is mutual. Students make sure they don’t take advantage of their beloved custodian who works so hard.


“They remind each other, ‘Don’t make a mess for Fred!’ ” Graham said.


See more here.

Re-created music videos help Godfrey-Lee students hone production skills

By Erin Albanese, School News Network


You can “Jump!” in teacher Jeff Patin’s introduction to video production class, or “Walk like an Egyptian,” or go “Dancing in the Dark.”


As part of the class, ninth- through 12th-grade students harked back to the “I want my MTV” decade by creating music videos as they existed when the craft started out. While practicing camera shots, angles and movements, they also learned a little about totally ’80s hair bands and the corny lyrics teenagers rocked to three decades ago.


Godfrey-Lee High School Senior Aracely Quinones records with senior Miguel Lemus

Patin said the project was a way to practice and showcase their video production skills — and, to some extent, entertain him and other Godfrey-Lee Public Schools staff members who remember the decade well. The students recently presented their finished videos to the Board of Education.


“It’s different,” said senior Humberto Gallarzo, about the music from Patin’s generation. Humberto helped produce the video, “Oh Sherrie” by Steve Perry.


Why the ’80s? “That’s my decade,” Patin joked. “Why do something really cinematic when you can do something really cheesy?”


Students are unfamiliar with the songs, he said, and have to take time learning the lyrics. “I chose the ’80s because verbally they are safe (not explicit) and it puts everybody on the same playing field because they don’t know the songs,” Patin explained.


New Tech for Retro Remakes

Unlike in the ’80s, students in the class make their videos with their smart phones and use the Apple program iMovie for editing. The results are shot-for-shot remakes of some of the most memorable songs from 30 years ago, from jumping like Eddie Van Halen to crooning like Rick Springfield over “Jessie’s Girl.” In editing, the original video appeared in the corner of students’ remakes to show how closely they match. “It was hard to stay serious,” said senior Aracely Quinones, who served as camera operator for the “Oh, Sherrie” video.


students-rock-out-to-steve-perry“It’s fun and you’re learning at the same time,” said senior Johnny Lopez, who edited the video. “It gets people out of their comfort zone.”


Because of the music video and other projects in the class, students said they now watch TV and movies in a new way, paying attention to the angles, framing, movements and other elements.’


“I can’t watch a simple show without thinking about this class,” said senior Miguel Lemus.



A chance to have their say – finally

Eligible students cast their ballots for the presidential election and several state positions.

First-Time Voters Reflect on Presidential Election


By Erin Albanese, Charles Honey and Linda Odette

School News Network


For 18-year-old high school students, last Tuesday’s election was their first chance to cast a ballot for president. School News Network asked several students from Kent County-area public schools what their first vote for president meant to them, what they learned from it and whom they voted for. Here we share the views of three of those students, from East Kentwood, Godwin Heights and Byron Center.



Esteban Nunez

Esteban Nunez, Godwin Heights High School

“To me it was something really important, especially in society today and the way things are going. I like to show my opinion along with understanding how it feels to be part of something and knowing something I say matters,” said Estaban Nunez.


He said the electoral process was “kind of confusing at the beginning, but later on I caught on.


“I voted for Gary Johnson. Generally, I encourage the idea of moving forward instead of staying with what the Republicans and Democrats are doing.”


Gregory Perhamus (Facebook photo)

Gregory Perhamus, East Kentwood High School

“For lack of better words it was really kind of cool. My mom always took me voting with her ever since I was little. … So now, for me to add a vote to this election and to be a part in the say and do my duty as a citizen was something I found very interesting. I felt really honored and proud to be part of the population.


“My mom teaches education at Grand Valley State University, so I was always in the know, so I don’t know if I learned anything new.” He said he took time to study the local elections. “I got more education on that perspective.


“I voted for Hillary, not totally in support of Hillary, but I guess against Trump. I think a lot of people did that. It was a rough election to have as a first election. When I look back at it in 20 years and someone asks who I voted for, I won’t be proud to say either one. I don’t know if anyone will, but it is what it is. We have four years. Hopefully next election we will have someone better.”


Maria Cotts, Byron Center High School

“I really liked it because I took a government class last year and I liked how I was able to vote this year. I liked that I could get involved and exercise my right to vote after learning about it for so long.”


Maria said she felt armed with knowledge about how voting works from her Advanced Placement government class. “I know lots about it, why it works, why it was put in place. I learned about the whole voting process and how it works at the polls.”


Still, it was a new experience. “I had never seen the ballot before,” she said.


“I voted for Hillary Clinton. … It should be interesting today,” she said the day after the election.


School News Network: ‘They Get to Own Their Learning’: Intervention Program Brings Multiple Gains

Teacher Joe Marsiglia works with seventh-grader Teron Collier, who has made huge gains in SWAS.
Teacher Joe Marsiglia works with seventh-grader Teron Collier, who has made huge gains in SWAS.

By Erin Albanese

School News Network


Manuel Ochoa’s face lit up in a smile. He had just learned he will exit the middle school’s new School within a School Program at the end of the marking period. After several years working to get on track academically, he will return to the regular classroom.


For the past few weeks in the SWAS intervention program, Manuel has excelled. The seventh-grader covered a lot of ground in history and language arts classes, and had achieved an 80 percent overall score. “I just worked,” he said, explaining his progress. “It has helped me a lot.”


Led by teacher Joe Marsiglia, SWAS has eight students enrolled and is located in a classroom at the end of a quiet wing of the school. Students who have been identified for failing grades and behavior problems– most have been suspended at least once this fall– work on subjects on computers, regularly getting help from Marsiglia. They are together all day, even for lunch.


“We have some students flying through the coursework, which is pretty awesome,” Marsiglia said. “They get to own their learning.”


Students are working at their own pace, most making steady gains.


Eighth-grader Gage Sims recently learned he is on track to exit the SWAS intervention program.
Eighth-grader Gage Sims recently learned he is on track to exit the SWAS intervention program.

“We are finding behavior is better,” said Assistant Principal Beth Travis. “They are focusing on their work. A lot of the students like the fact that they can put on the headphones and get lost in the academics and shut out the outside influences.”


SWAS addresses several issues to break the all-too-common cycle of poor grades, poor attendance and poor behavior.


“We are trying to think outside of the box,” Travis said. “We need something that’s going to help our students. We are finding it’s a frustrating cycle when they act out and make a poor decision in class. They get sent home for their actions; they come back the next day and they are already behind in their schoolwork, so they act out again.”


The class is the most intensive part of a three-tier system the middle school uses to help at-risk students. At the beginning of the school year, teachers began monitoring students’ grades and behavior if they showed signs of academic, attendance and behavior problems. Marsiglia met weekly with those who showed a continued pattern of problems, discussing behavior goals and grades.


Finally, he met twice a week with students facing suspension and failing grades, even sitting with them during classes to get to know them. From there, staff identified eight students who were most at risk to start SWAS.


Each student has a chance to enter or exit the program each quarter. Three, including Manuel, are now on track to exit, which will open up three new spots for at-risk students.


After eighth grade, Travis said, students with academic and behavior problems sometimes switch to alternative schools. “Our hopes are to keep the students here at school to teach them better behavior choices, and to get them to pass the classes and get them the knowledge they need to move on to the next grade.”


While the program is not punitive, returning to the regular classroom can be a strong incentive for students. “They want to be with their friends,” Travis said. “It’s middle school. They are very social.”


Added Attention Helps

Signs of success include more content students. “Since this has started, none of these students have been suspended,” Travis said. “We have not had one student with one discipline referral.”


Marsiglia said the 1-to-8 teacher-student ratio allows him to get ahead of any potentially bad behavior. “(SWAS) takes them out of a class where they want to be the king or queen. Instead of being the focus of attention, they all have their own individual attention, with me.”


Seventh-grader Teron Collier said SWAS has helped him get better grades.


“There aren’t a lot of kids in the class, so I get help from the teacher more,” he said.


The school’s community coordinator also spends an hour in the classroom each day to provide added support.


There have been other success stories, he said. One student discovered she really likes history and geography. “She didn’t know it until she was in here. Now, she’s so far ahead in that class,” Marsiglia said.


Be sure to check out School News Network for more stories about our great students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan!

Harvest Fest is Bumper Crop of Fun

A snort from Sunny startles students
A snort from Sunny startles students

By: Erin Albanese — School News Network


The county fair stopped by North Godwin Elementary School for Harvest Day, when students met a horse and goats, played games for treats, made crafts and took tractor-hitched hayrides.


The event, which the school has hosted for 12 years, is an alternative to a traditional Halloween party, and involves a half-day of autumn-themed fun, supported by local businesses that provide discounts for food and materials.


Staff members turned the basketball court into a makeshift pumpkin patch, where students picked out gourds. “It’s a beauty! I found a beauty!” shouted one first-grader as he grabbed his mini-pumpkin.


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Be sure to check out School News Network for more stories about our great students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan!

Students need civics more than ever, educators say

Ellen Zwarensteyn
Ellen Zwarensteyn

By: Erin Albanese – School News Network


Hillary Baker and Ellen Zwarensteyn have coached students in becoming so well-versed in government and civics that they take home national awards.


Baker has led outstanding We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution teams, made up of high school students who rattle off informed opinions about different facets of the U.S. Constitution in front of lawyers, judges and professors. Zwarensteyn has coached award-winning high school debaters who argue different sides of complex policy.


But despite their track records in engaging students in civics, politics and government, both educators say there is much work to be done. As the U.S. presidential campaign creeps closer and closer toward Election Day, evidence mounts that good civics education is more important than ever.


Baker and Zwarensteyn are crafting civics curriculum and training teachers nationally, as well as working to get debate and We the People teams in more schools.


“It’s been a real interesting year in how might we craft how we talk about the election and really getting kids to explore issues,” Baker said. “How do you go beyond the candidates and really unearth and look at issues, and be able to talk about the election in a way that promotes deep understanding?”


screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-1-31-19-pmBaker and Zwarensteyn’s work spans more than two decades at East Kentwood High School. Baker taught civics, Advanced Placement government, and coached We the People for over 15 years. She is now Forest Hills Central High School’s assistant principal. Zwarensteyn coached debate for 15 years and has served as a teacher and coach since 2006. She is on leave to work on other projects focused on civics teaching.


How Have We Gotten Here?


Because of their work, the pair have a sense of the current teaching climate. Many teachers don’t feel up to the task of even including the election in classroom discussion, they say.


“We’ve had civics teachers say they are not going to talk about it at all,” Zwarensteyn said.


But skipping lessons on polemic issues fuels the divide even further, she said.


“That’s the $20,000 question,” Baker said. “Many teachers are afraid to talk about politics in the classroom because they are afraid of backlash from parents or the administration.”


But students quickly pick up on tone and what is considered OK to say. Hateful, insulting talk and rhetoric can be contagious. Knowing how to appropriately conduct political discourse is a vanishing skill set, Zwarensteyn said.


“It’s almost as if someone might have given other people permission to speak that way,” she said. “Honestly, many students are afraid. What we have seen is that they don’t have a fundamental understanding of themselves yet enough to filter what they are hearing in the news.”


Added Baker: “(It’s) that whole idea of civil discourse and how do we appropriately model it in the classroom? How do we engage in ideas and issues, especially when the adults in the national spotlight don’t necessarily do that very well themselves?”


hillarybakerAdults Create the Climate


While students are influenced by candidates, more than anything they mimic other adults, Zwarensteyn said.


“If people at home aren’t filtering or watching multiple news sources or aren’t getting their news from multiple different perspectives, then there’s very little chance for that kid to see other divergent points of view.”


That’s perhaps one reason the country is so polarized, she added: “We only seek out information that confirms an existing bias, and students don’t see that as a particular problem yet. They see news as news, not a perspective.”


Baker and Zwarensteyn are encouraging teachers to think deeper and consider these questions: How do we teach ethical listening to one another? How do we teach what privilege looks like or taking multiple perspectives on an issue? How do we honor different opinions and still have a baseline of civility?


The goal of their far-ranging work is to give students a broader view and deeper knowledge of things that impact their lives.


“These programs are good for all kids,” Baker said. “It’s the kind of learning students are doing that really engages them in current issues and what’s going on around them in their communities, in the state and the nation and even around the world.”


Be sure to check out School News Network for more stories about our great students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan!

Welcome to High-Tech Classroom, INC.

Students can work in groups in a comfortable living-room type setting

New study space patterned after workplace


By: Erin Albanese — School News Network


Crestwood Middle School’s new Collaboration Center looks more like a modern professional meeting room than a place seventh-graders complete school work.


kw_collaboraton_center_2Tables are situated for group work; a huge projector screen stands next to walls that serve as whiteboards. An artistic panel serves as a partition for a living-room style area. Small white boards called huddle boards connect to tables for students to scrawl notes. Six TV screens hang on the walls to display what’s projected on the big screen. Everything is outfitted for technology.


“This will have the best up-to-date technology a district can have,” said Superintendent Mike Zoerhoff. “We are trying to give our kids space to be innovative and not be held back by the constraints of a room.”


Crestwood’s Collaboration Center opened a year and a half ago, serving as a pilot for centers in schools district-wide. East Kentwood High School and the Freshman Campus will have centers as well as Pinewood and Valleywood middle schools. Elementary schools, beginning with Bowen, Brookwood, Southwood and Townline, will have redesigned media centers that blend features of a traditional library with the Collaboration Center concept. Centers are modeled after spaces at Steelcase University Learning Center in Grand Rapids.


kw_collaboraton_center_3The projects are funded through the $64.8 million bond passed last November. The plan for technology is ongoing to keep up with district needs and ever-evolving tech innovations over the next 10 years, Zoerhoff said.


Seventh-grade student Madison Catching, while working in the Collaboration Center with her class, glanced at the TV screen above the table where she worked on on a laptop. On the TV was an example of a writing prompt related to her language-arts assignment. “If we are back here and we can’t see (the large screen) we can look up here to see,” Madison said.


Teacher Erika Vann books the room regularly for her class because she loves the learning environment.


“I like how large it is,” Vann said. “The kids can move around. I don’t have to say ‘Shhh.’ They can talk.”


They also are savvy with the technology, and working on it while working together comes naturally, Vann said. “I tell them, ‘You are going to be doing this all your life. Collaboration is a part of everything.'”


Principal Don Dahlquist said the center is perfect for cross-curricular learning and projects that take on a new level of innovation. Even physical education teachers use it. “It really allows the teaching staff to be creative,” he said.


kw_collaboraton_center_1Funding for Safety, Security and Technology


Since the bond issue’s approval the district has purchased eight new buses, eliminating double runs and adding video camera for increased safety and security. Twenty-eight buses will be replaced over 10 years.


Parking lots were resurfaced at Endeavor and Townline elementary schools and exterior lighting was replaced.


More than 750 laptop computers were purchased district-wide. The plan is to purchase more than 5,000 Chromebooks over 10 years.


Artificial turfs were replaced at Falcon Stadium and Pat Patterson Athletic Field.


Projects planned for summer 2017 include a site plan renovation at East Kentwood High School to improve traffic flow and entrances.


Be sure to check out School News Network for more stories about our great students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan!

New Coordinators Serve Up Hugs & Help

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By: Erin Albanese — School News Network

East Kelloggsville Elementary School kindergartner Ricky Brooks threw his arms around Student Service Coordinator Christie Alexander in a big hug. “Thank you!” he exclaimed.


Alexander had spent a few minutes with Ricky, helping him line up paperclips to make shapes during a class activity. Since meeting him on the first day of school, she has gotten to know Ricky well by checking on him every day.


He thrives from the positive attention, said teacher Kathi Burke. Alexander’s job is to provide students with someone to turn to if they need a break or need to talk, and students, including Ricky, benefit from it. “It makes a kid feel needed,” Burke said.


“Some of the kids just need a break… a walk in the hallway,” Burke said. They come back ready to listen after a little time with Alexander. “Five minutes is usually enough.”


Kindergartner Ricky Brooks gives Christie Alexander an impromptu embrace
Kindergartner Ricky Brooks gives Christie Alexander an impromptu embrace

Covering the Spectrum of Need


A few blocks away at West Kelloggsville Elementary School, Student Service Coordinator Sara Cinadr checked third-grader Jayden Mast’s blood sugar level and administered an insulin shot to control his diabetes. At the same time, they discussed what was making Jayden a little “grumpy.”


And at Southeast Elementary School, Student Service Coordinator Bilal Muhammad spun a basketball atop his finger and tried to pass it onto the fingertip of fifth-grader Lily Vandergeld in mid-rotation. Before that, he greeted students on the way to recess, taking note of every student who walked by. “Christopher, where are your glasses?” he asked one student.


Alexander, Cinadr and Muhammad began the new full-time district positions in September. They are modeled after Kent School Services Network, a countywide program that brings social and medical services to students’ schools and homes. KSSN is run through a partnership with local districts and Kent ISD, and Kelloggville’s Southeast Elementary School had a KSSN community site coordinator and clinician for several years.


To provide equitable services to all elementary schools, the district, which has a high-poverty population, hired its own staff to fill the roles, said Tammy Savage, assistant superintendent for the district.


“We’re an extra support, and we support in whatever way we’re needed,” Cinadr said.


Muhammad is a former athletic director for Riverside Middle School in Grand Rapids Public Schools; Alexander is a former high school guidance counselor, elementary school counselor and has worked in juvenile justice and with Child Protective Services. Cinadr is a former GRPS teacher.


Positive Forces


Sara Cinadr gives third-grader Jayden Mast an insulin shot
Sara Cinadr gives third-grader Jayden Mast an insulin shot

The student service coordinators focus on attendance and behavior and form relationships with students during recess and lunch. They check in on students who need extra attention. They communicate with families and make home visits to establish rapport with families and emphasize the importance of attendance.


“We provide positive feedback for students and see them at least twice a day to talk to them about what good choices they are making and say, ‘Keep up the good work,'” Cinadr said.


She can relate to teachers who need a helping hand. “Coming from the classroom, I loved teaching; I loved my students, but there were so many needs that I saw that I couldn’t meet on my own, with having to balance the academics, and the relationships, and the calling home. And the this. And the that.”


Muhammad grew up in a single-parent home with his mother, a school principal. He looks to her as a role model for how to build relationships with students.


“We know it’s all about ‘it takes a village,’ ” he said.


Be sure to check out School News Network for more stories about our great students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan!

At Rebel U, Focus is On ‘the Who’

Teacher Lindsay Blume, at right, discusses innovation with colleagues
Teacher Lindsay Blume, at right, discusses innovation with colleagues

By: Erin Albanese — School News Network


When students choose to learn about a topic they care about, Godfrey-Lee Early Childhood Center teacher Lindsay Blume sees the potential for genius to emerge.


Her English-language learner first- and second-grade students last school year researched topics ranging from a dog’s life cycle to how studios make movies, how to make a pizza and how to take care of cats. Why? Because they wanted to — and were given the chance.


Blume set aside time for Genius Hour to create a product from research, like a board game where you collect ingredients for pizza and a how-to book on cat care. It was up to the students to create what they wanted. Genius Hour is a simple concept that allots time for students to choose something they want to learn and work on a “pet project” about their subject.


She shared the process, which she hopes will expand to more classrooms and grade levels, at Rebel U. It was the district’s sixth annual professional development day that provides teachers with opportunities to learn how teaching and learning can be transformed through the use of technology.


Rebel U traditionally has focused on technology integration, but now is tied to a broader theme: human-centered design, an approach to problem solving that incorporates the wants and needs of end users of a product or service in every stage of the design process. (Conversely, think of a service that doesn’t consider its recipients’ true needs, like a winter coat drive for Costa Rican children. No matter how well-meaning, the service is likely not helpful.)


The district received a $250,000 grant from the Steelcase Foundation to re-imagine schools for the small, mostly Hispanic, low-income district over a two-year span using the human-centered design process. It focuses on the real needs of Godfrey-Lee students. Teachers said they’ve been challenged by the program, now in its second year, to be innovative and take risks. Genius Hour is an example of an idea that sprung from human-centered design thinking, Blume said. Instead of telling students what they need to learn about, student get to choose. That leads to more passion and innovation.


At Rebel U, teachers embraced new ideas as they headed into the school year. Questions discussed during a brainstorming question were: How can we use podcasts to connect with community members? How might we connect families with Kent District Library resources? How can we use virtual reality to enhance lessons?


Godfrey-Lee Early Childhood Center Principal Peter Geerling adds ideas on sticky notes about serving students best
Godfrey-Lee Early Childhood Center Principal Peter Geerling adds ideas on sticky notes about serving students best

Learning the ‘Who’ of It


The focus is on the “who,” said Superintendent David Britten.”That changes the outlook of the classroom instead of just focusing on what someone told you your kids should be learning. It’s what you think as an adult they should be learning. You focus on who they are and design learning around that.


“School’s got to be different than it was for the benefit of our kids, and technology is one tool.”


Genius Hour shows the possibilities of both technology and human-centered design in the classroom, and Blume said she wouldn’t be doing it without the opportunities available through human-centered design.


“It has helped me to step outside the box and know that I have the administrators’ and the whole district staff’s support to try new things. I’m encouraging my students to do the same thing,” Blume said. “We don’t have to adhere to the rigid ‘sit and let me give you information.’ The students are discovering it for themselves and that makes it a lot more meaningful.”


Kelsey Koetje, a first-and second- grade special education teacher, introduced Green Screen at Rebel U. The video-making program puts students in front of a green poster that comes to life behind them, integrating images into a topic they are presenting on. When it comes to how her students learn best, Koetje said human-centered design has given her the confidence to “figure it out.”


“Our district is very supportive of trying new things and figuring out what your specific students needs and going from there,” Koetje said. “We do have those high standards they want us to meet, but also encourage us to take risks and try it and if it doesn’t work you try something new.”


As part of the human-centered design process last year, a 19-member district team interviewed Godfrey-Lee families about their hopes and dreams. Hearing from those families impacted the thinking of Godfrey Elementary School Principal Andrew Steketee about how to involve them even more at school.


“It’s been all about opening up communication with our families,” Steketee said. “It has really opened my eyes. We can do so much more to invite them in, to get on the same level as each other.”


Be sure to check out School News Network for more stories about our great students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan!

‘The Whole District is a Family’

teacher academy
New Wyoming Public Schools Staff members get to know each other during the New Teacher Academy

By: Erin Albanese — School News Network


Thirty-three new teachers and 22 support staff members, including food service positions, bus drivers and paraprofessionals, are getting to know district students this month.


It’s the biggest crop of new hires for many years in Wyoming Public Schools, administrators said.


New teachers replace 28 long-time district teachers who accepted a buyout incentive last spring. Teachers with 20 years or more in the district who were making $70,000 or more qualified for the buyout, which was $45,000 to retire or resign.


New teachers include recent college graduates beginning their first teaching jobs. Others are from charter schools and out-of-state districts, said Sarah Earnest, superintendent for employee relationships.


Teachers recently completed a three-day New Teacher Academy at Wyoming Junior High to work on building collaboration, connections and culture. The district’s theme this year is “Better Together,” Assistant Superintendent Craig Hoekstra said.


New Wyoming Intermediate School English-language learner teacher Marissa Bliss is among a crop of 33 new teachers in the district
New Wyoming Intermediate School English-language learner teacher Marissa Bliss is among a crop of 33 new teachers in the district

Each teacher will become part of the story and history of the district, he added. “We all have skills and talents. How do we grow from one and other?”


New Wyoming High School geometry teacher Jeffrey Kordich, a Grand Valley State University graduate, starts at Wyoming after teaching physical education for three years at Korea International School in South Korea. He also spent three years teaching math in Quito, Ecuador.


“I love the diversity I’m seeing in the students and staff, and just the excitement and positive energy that Wyoming Public Schools has for education.”


Liz Kenney, a new second grade teacher at West Elementary, comes from Benton Harbor Charter School Academy, and has also taught math intervention at North Godwin Elementary School, in Godwin Heights Public Schools. She is a GVSU graduate.


“One of the biggest things I’m most excited about is you can definitely feel the family here. They’re always talking about building relationships. They mean it. The whole district is a family and that’s very evident,,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to working with teachers and collaborating because they’ve effectively done that here.”


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Is Play Still a Kindergarten Expectation?

Getting down to writing: A kindergartner opens his notebook
Getting down to writing: A kindergartner opens his notebook

By: Erin Albanese — School News Network


Ask any parent of a dinosaur lover who can identify an Apatosaurus at age 3 if learning occurs during play, and the answer is an obvious “yes.”


But with the added work on kindergartners comes less time for leisure, and one of the biggest differences in kindergartners’ school life is the decrease in free playtime.


According to the 2009 report “Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need Play in School,” from the Alliance for Childhood, kindergarten children now spend far more time being taught and tested on literacy and math skills than they do learning through play and exploration, exercising their bodies, and using their imaginations. At a school studied in Los Angeles, kindergarten students spent 88.6 minutes on literacy instruction, 46.9 minutes on math instruction, 21 minutes on testing and test prep and 19.1 minutes on choice time.


“Kids do learn through play,” said Wyoming’s West Elementary School teacher Julie Merrill. “You can listen to their conversations. I love listening to them outside, the games they come up with, the rules. We have to really be cognizant of that social piece.”


A student draws himself at kindergarten orientation
A student draws himself at kindergarten orientation

While students are learning to read, write and do math at higher levels than ever, social connections are just as important, educators said.


“I work really hard to make a community of caring and friendly 5-year-olds. That used to be what kindergarten was. That used to be the total purpose,” Merrill said.


Grandville’s West Elementary teacher Stacy Byl gives her kindergartners time to explore without telling them what to do during a 20-minute chunk of unstructured play. Byl thinks it’s time well spent.


“I think it’s hugely important for them to build social skills and to work out what life looks like without someone structuring your every minute,” she said, noting that her students also have a 40-minute recess.


Karen Young, a kindergarten teacher since 2000 at McFall Elementary in the Thornapple Kellogg School District, agreed.


“They need to play,” Young said. “They need to learn to get along with each other. How do you learn about the world if you don’t play? Activities like painting and coloring give the brain a chance to be creative.”


At Godfrey-Lee Early Childhood Center, which houses grades kindergarten through second, teachers hosted a Day of Play last winter, during which students were allowed to have a free day of roaming the halls, sledding and playing in the snow outside without adult interference.


Godfrey-Lee Superintendent David Britten said he stresses the importance of play because kindergarten traditionally was designed for school readiness, not academic achievement.


“It was focused on developmentally appropriate play, the arts, physical activity, developing basic literacy through story time, and learning some of the rudimentary skills such as getting along with others, taking turns, picking things up, and using scissors, crayons, paste and paints,” Britten said.


Wyoming’s West Elementary teacher Julie Merrill familiarizes new students with her classroom rules
Wyoming’s West Elementary teacher Julie Merrill familiarizes new students with her classroom rules

Much of that is now skipped, he said, without taking into account that children in kindergarten can be at very different levels developmentally. The difference in social development between a young 5 and an older 6-year-old in the same classroom is huge.


“Not all young brains are developed for retention of academic learning and so we start kindergartners right out comparing themselves to others and feeling like failures,” Britten said.


But play is a natural way for children to learn, and they do it in many ways, he said. They explore new ideas, gain empathy for playing with others, solve problems that come up during an activity without adult intervention, and learn about their role in a community by negotiating rules. Imagination and creativity are acted out.


“Many times, children will play around something they’ve learned or are learning thereby reinforcing what they learned. This tends to stay in their memory longer,” he said.


Kindergarten should focus on creating learning opportunities centered on what kids need to be successful in their futures, he added.


“Cramming content into them starting at 4 or 5 years old is nothing but a recipe for failure,” Britten said. “Many democratic-style schools allow free-play and multi-age learning, and those students tend to do just as well after high school as students from traditional schools.”


School News Network reporter Linda Odette contributed to this article.


Be sure to check out School News Network for more stories about our great students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan!

New School Leader Loves ‘100 Percent Authenticity’ of Students

New middle school principal Aaron Berlin meets future students
New middle school principal Aaron Berlin meets future students

By: Erin Albanese — School News Network


School: Godwin Heights Middle School


Previous job?

For the past few years I have been working as the assistant principal at Godwin Heights High School. We are a small school district of just over 2,000 students. We are one of the most diverse districts in Kent County, and we believe it is our diversity that makes us special.



I earned my bachelor of arts in education from Cornerstone University, majoring in social studies and minoring in health. I earned my master’s in educational leadership from Western Michigan University.


Other positions you have held in education (title, school, district, state):

I have had a variety of positions in educational settings, including in-school suspension supervisor and dean of students at Grandville Public Schools. My first job here at Godwin Heights was as a youth development coordinator at the middle school. I transferred to the high school as dean of students, then became assistant principal.


How about jobs outside education (even the unexpected is welcome!)?

I am 48. In my earlier years I had a variety of jobs. I spent a few years in the restaurant business as head chef at a restaurant. After a few years of working 70 hours a week I decided to go back to school and earn my degree in education.


Besides getting to know the staff and families, what are you most looking forward to as principal here?

I am looking forward to having the chance to come to school every day and work with all of my students. I believe it is my job as principal to pour into these children, and to give my staff the support they need to help the students develop the tools they will need to achieve their goals as they grow older.


Aaron Berlin
Aaron Berlin

What kind of kid were you at the age of students at this new school (your personality, interests, hobbies, activities)?

Funny, I was just talking about my experiences as a middle-school student with another staff member last week. I was a terrible student back in middle school. I was extremely smart but really struggled to find success in the classroom. I struggled because I never learned to be a good student in the classroom, to take good notes, do my homework and simply stay organized. Most importantly, I never was willing to ask the people around me for help. I had family and teachers in my corner pushing me to do better and never really lived up to those expectations.


It was not until I was much older and went to school as an adult that I figured out how to be a good student.



My wife and I have been married for going on 21 years. Linda is a teacher and has spent the last 20 years teaching at Grandville Public Schools. We have a daughter named Sierra; she is almost 14 years old and entering her first year at Grandville. Both of the women in my life are much smarter than I am.



My biggest interest outside of work is spending time with my family. We love watching movies and playing golf as a family. I have spent 20 years coaching high school football. My role as a principal has taken up my time and so I am no longer coaching. My goal, when all is said and done, is to find myself coaching some seventh- and eighth-grade football, spending my time working with the younger players.


What inspires you, both in your educational role and in your own life?

My goal is to grow as a husband, a father and a friend. The older I get the more I understand how challenging that goal can be. Everyday life gives us opportunities to learn through our own experiences. My hope it to get better at those three things on a daily basis.


What makes you laugh (we bet you’ll say kids – what else?)

I love hearing the honesty that comes from student conversations. If you are having a rough day and just take a movement and spend some time with a bunch of fifth grade students during lunch, they will say some of the funniest things you will ever hear. They are 100 percent authentic at that age and it is just awesome to hear all of them laughing at the same time. It almost becomes contagious.


What would people be surprised to learn about you?

Some people would be surprised that I love to golf. I try to get out as much as possible. Being out of the course is one way that I find to relax. I am not very good, but I love to play and have fun with friends and family.


Tell us about a non-professional book you recommend and why:

In my free time I love to read mysteries, thrillers and good old-fashioned spy novels. I just finished all the books in the Mitch Rapp series written by Vince Flynn. Sometimes it is good to simply get away and shut the mind down for a bit.


Be sure to check out School News Network for more stories about our great students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan!

Grant Hopes to Boost Achievement, Performance Rank

Godwin Heights High students work on science projects at the spring Science Night
Godwin Heights High students work on science projects at the spring Science Night

By: Erin Albanese — School News Network


The district’s high school will use money from a recently approved School Improvement Grant on technology, professional development and added personnel to help zero in on areas of need.


The five-year grant, approved by the Michigan Department of Education, will include allocations of $750,000 each year for the first three years and $500,000 each year for the final two years. Godwin Heights is one of 14 low-performing schools to receive the grant to increase student achievement.


The MDE is distributing the federal funds to the schools in the bottom 5 percent of the state’s annual top-to-bottom rankings, as Michigan’s last SIG recipients. It is also the final round of SIG grants nationwide.


While approval of the grant coincided with the state’s School Reform Office’s announcement that it may close some priority schools, Superintendent William Fetterhoff said there is no indication that Godwin Heights High School will be shuttered. School Reform Office officials visited the school in August, but have checked in regularly, sometimes virtually, since the school was put on the list in 2013.


“They have actually been happy with the progress they’ve seen,” Fetterhoff said. “Our growth has been received well as we’ve reported it, but more importantly we’ve been happy with the strides we’ve seen in our student progress.”


Principal Chad Conklin said students have made gains without the SIG grant and the funds will help that momentum continue. Before the state switched the required high school college-entrance assessment from the ACT to SAT, they experienced a 5 to 10 percent increase in scores on the ACT, from an overall composite score of 16.4 in 2012-2013 to 2014-2015. Scores increased in each ACT content area as well.


“I’m very proud and excited to be able to say we’ve seen an increase in our standardized test scores over the last two years and they’ve been the best that they’ve been than over the last five years,” he said.


The SIG grant will go toward include improving literacy across all content area, preparing students for the workforce or college by developing communication and collaboration skills and professional development.


It will also fund a SIG coordinator and data coach, which could be a combined or separate positions, and intervention specialists, who are like learning coaches.


The data coach will train staff to use data to find gaps in learning.


“Intervention specialists will be working right alongside our core teachers, almost in a co-teaching regard so they add more support in our classrooms,” Conklin said.


The specialists will provide after-school tutoring offered to prioritize learning based on how students do on assessments. New classroom technology will include including Chromebook carts, interactive whiteboards and digital projectors.


Godwin Heights should be removed from priority school status after this year, Conklin said.


“We need to have another good year of standardized testing and see our scores improve for that to happen, and we fully expect that to happen.”


He said they are continuing to work toward improvement goals.


“We have a fantastic staff at the high school that is working tremendously hard on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “I know they’re excited to have a little extra support now with the SIG grant to provide even more things for the students.”


Be sure to check out School News Network for more stories about our great students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan!

How to Reform Education? One District Considers Students’ Needs

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By: Erin Albanese — School News Network


Lydia Hernandez took the day off from volunteering at the elementary school to prepare a big meal for visitors from the district’s human-centered design team. Around the table, team members interviewed her for 90 minutes about her husband, who was at work, her background and her education. They asked her about dreams for her children, Kevin, an eighth-grader and Kaylee, a fourth-grader.


The team added Hernandez’s comments, along with those from 19 other district families, to data they are using to reform the district according to the needs of students using the human-centered design process, an approach to problem solving that incorporates the wants and needs of end users of a product or service in every stage. It starts and ends with the beneficiary, in this case Godfrey-Lee students.


“It felt good because they chose my family,” said Hernandez, a committed volunteer at Kaylee’s school. “I was able to talk to them about my story, my family and my kids… The opinion of the parents is important.”


Interviewing families was part of the initial year of the two-year process, under way to improve education in the small, mostly Hispanic, low-income district. The team – nine teachers, five administrators, a support staff member, a Board of Education member, a leadership coach and two design consultants – also spent 60 hours at 22 work sessions exploring information to determine true needs of students.


The process is funded by a $250,000 Steelcase Foundation grant, which is covering guidance by representatives of New North Center, a Holland-based nonprofit hybrid education and business organization. It includes a leadership and accountability coach, stipends for session participation and other tasks.


Of the 20 families, teams interviewed parents of students in the district, parents of graduates, a Schools of Choice parent, and those who are very involved and uninvolved in the schools. Each group interviewed three Hispanic, one black and one white family, mirroring the district’s demographics. They also interviewed an Iraqi family. Plans are to continue interviewing other district stakeholders, such as business people and alumni.


What’s the End Goal?


“Why we are doing this is because we don’t have an education system that helps kids realize their dreams, their vision and their goals for the future,” said Superintendent David Britten.


The team aims to work toward new ideas, instruction philosophies and programs that better suit students’ individual needs, said Britten, who is an advocate for play-based learning in early childhood education and classrooms where all students can take different pathways to develop their own interests.


Currently, schools are run with pre-set expectations that aren’t working for many students, he said. “We are telling them, ‘This is your goal. Your goal is to go to college. This is the path to getting there because it was a path created based on the average student, and everyone is expected to take that same path.'”


The team has studied broad topics: school-parent communication and relationships, creating a culture of acceptance and belonging, socialization in learning, and student choice.


Meetings have resulted in interconnected diagrams under headings like Relevance, Dynamic Learning, Community, Soft Skills and Basic Needs. Hundreds of ideas gathered from district stakeholders are written on Post-It notes with messages such as “Students need to create meaning,” “Students need to do to know” and “Students need today’s interests to be the foundation of new learning.”


Human-design team member Jason Cochran, a teacher at the alternative high school, East Lee, said ideas at the secondary level have included putting students in charge of what goes on at school, making it more of a democratic process in which students have input. Also, he said, that a more flexible schedule may benefit teenagers.


“A big part of it is focusing on what the kids themselves are interested in,” he said, noting that it’s often a battle convincing students what they need to learn.


He asked a few of his own students how they could learn better. “One was very outdoorsy and really into nature and animals,” Cochran said. “Immediately, he said, ‘I wish we could have school outside and learn about things like that. Instead I have to sit at a desk eight hours a day.’ That doesn’t work for him.”


Lydia Hernandez, a mom interviewed by the human-centered design team, makes copies while volunteering at school
Lydia Hernandez, a mom interviewed by the human-centered design team, makes copies while volunteering at school

Getting Rid of The Average


Britten has often said that he envisions a district without clocks, calendars or grade levels and no expectations based on averages. It’s the opposite of the current system, which he calls outdated and ineffective.


“The system itself is a structure based on the average,” he said. “It’s been designed that way purposely, because we have this mythical idea there is an average kid out there, which no one can ever identify because an average kid does not exist.”


Yet, in using a mathematical average with 20 percent at the top and 20 percent at the bottom, somewhere in the middle lies what is currently deemed the “average” child, on which time constraints and curriculum is based.


But peek into a Godfrey-Lee classroom and that child isn’t there. “We have kids all over the place because of poverty, because they’ve moved here from low-performing schools or different countries so they have language barriers,” Britten said. “We are still expected to move them all one full year of academic growth even if they aren’t ready for it.


“Our whole process this year has been to identify that as the problem and to gain empathy with all the stakeholders in this process to see it from their points of view.”


Be sure to check out School News Network for more stories about our great students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan!

Art of Kids Helping Kids is Food for All

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By: Erin Albanese — School News Network


As Oriole Park Elementary fourth-grader Adam Lagerway painted a cardboard carrot, second-grader Allie Evans thought about how a local organization feeds hungry students. “Six thousand sack suppers!” she shouted, while transforming her own art materials into food shapes.


Students in teacher Laura Sluys’ special education class were making a sculpture out of recycled materials with a visiting artist from the organization Artists Creating Together.


Semia Hatambo carries trail mix
Semia Hatambo carries trail mix

The piece was donated to Kids’ Food Basket, a non-profit the class has worked all year to support.


Students presented the completed sculpture, a box with food flowing out of it like a cornucopia, to Brandy Arnold, KFB Kids Helping Kids coordinator. Painted brightly were cardboard, cans, toilet paper rolls, bottles and other items made into sandwiches, apples, juice boxes, bananas, celery and yogurt.


It was the culmination of a school year spent combining creativity, compassion and lots of trail mix. Sluys received a $200 Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation Service Learning Grant to fund the project with KFB, dubbed “Disabling Hunger.”


She also received a grant through Artists Creating Together, which provides artist-in-residencies for students with special needs across Kent County for her class to complete the project with artist Nora Faber.


Sluys said she decided to combine the two experiences for her students. “It helps them connect all the pieces of what they’ve been doing.”


Students raised money for Kids Food Basket by collecting pennies
Students raised money for Kids Food Basket by collecting pennies

Throughout the school year, Sluys’ students have completed monthly efforts for KFB. They led all Oriole Park students in decorating and donating 214 bags for Brown Bag Decorating Day.


They made and packed trail mix in 100 plastic sandwich bags. They collected pennies to donate.


A $300 Target stores field trip grant also funded a grocery-shopping trip to purchase food to donate, and students volunteered at KFB. “We put some pudding in baskets so they can give them to kids that are hungry,” said second-grader Jamiah Abron.


Be sure to check out School News Network for more stories about our great students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan!

Visit a Senior, Meet a Pilot or a Teacher, or an Artist

Kelloggsville High School senior Thu Nguyen plays bingo with a resident
Kelloggsville High School senior Thu Nguyen plays bingo with a resident

By: Erin Albanese — School News Network


High school students have learned many interesting tidbits about the residents they are getting to know at American House Senior Living Community in Kentwood.


Each resident has a story, they’ve learned: Betty Reynolds was the first teacher at Battle Creek Christian School; Lois Laffey was a pilot. Margie Halstead is an artist who has 10 children, 35 grandchildren and 53 great-grandchildren. Margaret Gazella’s husband had to leave on their wedding day to fight in World War II.


“I love talking to the residents,” said Kelloggsville freshman Miles Thomas-Mohammad, while crafting glittery cardboard flowers with several ladies, and learning even more details about their lives. “They are so nice.”


They’ve learned other things as well while joining residents for crafts, games and snacks. Kelloggsvile senior Thu Nguyen, who is from Vietnam, said special moments happen over Bingo and just getting to know each other. “I want to make them feel happy so they don’t feel lonely,” she said.


And residents like it too. “It makes you feel young again,” said Elaine Wigger.


Added Ginger Kay, “It’s nice to have young people here, because they are so positive.”


Kelloggsville freshman Miles Thomas-Mohammad sets up crafts for senior citizens
Kelloggsville freshman Miles Thomas-Mohammad sets up crafts for senior citizens

A group of about eight Kelloggsville students, many who are English-language learners, visit the assisted-living and memory-care facilities monthly to spend time with seniors. Coordinated by EL teacher Susan Faulk, the volunteering opportunity is a way for students to give back and step out of their comfort zones and get to know others.


“The students gain patience and confidence as they work with the seniors,” Faulk said. “Many students are really shy and feel awkward around the seniors at first. I see their confidence grow as they realize that they are able to help someone else. I also see them having to learn patience, as a game of Skip-Bo and Rummikub can take a long time with a senior who has to think for a long time before taking action.”


For the past two years, Faulk has also coordinated a volunteer group at Women At Risk International Volunteer Center, a Grandville-based nonprofit organization that unites and educates women and children in areas of human trafficking and sexual slavery.


American House staff said the visits are very meaningful to residents.


Kelloggsville High School senior Dim Ciin eyes her Bingo board
Kelloggsville High School senior Dim Ciin eyes her Bingo board

“It’s always exciting to see people cross age barriers relationally,” said Susan Faulk’s husband, Steven Faulk, American House chaplain.


Activities assistant Betty Torres said the residents “love relating to the younger crowd. They have a lot of good stories to tell, our residents. They get so exited about a group coming in. It fulfills their whole being.”


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Sniffing Out the News is Elementary

Students work on stories (credit: Lysa Stockwell)
Students work on stories (credit: Lysa Stockwell)

By: Erin Albanese — School News Network


Gladiola Elementary School students sat around a table and discussed what lead — that’s journalistic jargon for introduction — would be best for this School News Network article about their new student newspaper, Gladiola Wolf Tracks.


“Meet all the students that made the first Gladiola Wolf Tracks newspaper,” said third-grader Megan Sivins.


“This is four out of 16 of the kids that came up with the Wyoming newspaper called Gladiola Wolf Tracks,” suggested fourth-grader Quinton Gebben.


And, “Meet the Gladiola Elementary students who came out on top and made the first Gladiola newspaper in the whole Gladiola school history,” said fourth-grader Brady Flint.


Fourth-grader Maddy Lee considered the best possible lead. She decided Brady had already nailed it.


Sixteen students in the after-school enrichment program at the Wyoming Public Schools building recently launched the newspaper after learning the basics of journalism from fourth-grade teacher Lysa Stockwell and by interviewing teachers, peers, staff members and even community officials, such as Wyoming Mayor Jack Poll.


They’ve covered events and school programs, with cameras and notepads in hand, learning to get details centered around the who, what, when, where and why questions for their stories. They use technology, including Google Docs, and keep current on what’s going on in the building


“They’ve interviewed all the staff members in the building, from teachers to custodians to parent volunteers. It’s been really, really exciting because the more they do the more excited they get,” said Principal David Lyon.


Elile Silvestre and Madeline Pauline interview Wyoming Police Officer Rory Allen (credit: Lysa Stockwell)
Elile Silvestre and Madeline Pauline interview Wyoming Police Officer Rory Allen (credit: Lysa Stockwell)

Wolves or News Hounds?


The ace cub reporters recently completed the second edition of their newspaper, with plans for another and monthly publications next school year. Lyon said the almost entirely student-written newspaper will incorporate the school’s newsletter.


Parents can donate $5 to have a message to their child published in the newspaper, supporting the costs of publication.


In class, students studied examples of journalism, heard from a local reporter who shared tips and experiences, and learned about interviewing skills, bias and plagiarism.


They also learned the fun they can have with journalism, Stockwell said.


“Generally, kids don’t have the chance to have their writing published and for them to have that opportunity has really been exciting for them,” Stockwell said.


“Writing has become really authentic for them,” Lyon added. “Plus, they are far more alert now to things going on in the building.”


When a story presents itself, Wolf Tracks reporters have jumped at the chance to grab a notepad. For example, they took the initiative to cover a sneak-peek performance of the Wyoming High School musical.


Brady said he enjoyed writing a story about teacher Kimberly Swiger called “Mrs. Swiger: The Inside Story.” In it she talks about her favorite books, and that she’s spent 25 years teaching, has 10 nieces and nephews and attended Gladiola herself.


“Mrs. Swiger told the best stories,” Brady said. “I really liked being an interviewer and reporter and writing the articles. I am a social butterfly.”


Pinky Nguyen and Dion Idizi are busy with the news (credit: Lysa Stockwell)
Pinky Nguyen and Dion Idizi are busy with the news (credit: Lysa Stockwell)

Back to the Headlines


Discussion around the table continued after the students had found their lede. They talked about their favorite interviews with the art and music teacher and other staff members.
“I like when I interviewed Mr. Lyon. He can ride a unicycle,” Quinton said.


Further conversation led to the fact that Lyon can also juggle, prompting a follow-up question from Brady: “Can he juggle while riding a unicycle?”


Now, there’s a nose for news.


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Sisters Follow Identical Career Paths

Teacher Sarah David helps a student hang up a piece of writing
Teacher Sarah David meets with a group of students in her classroom

By: Erin Albanese — School News Network


West Godwin Elementary School Principal Steve Minard remembers interviewing teachers for a third-grade position. One candidate had an ideal background: an elementary education degree from Hope College and teaching experience in Honduras.


Later that afternoon, another teacher interviewed with the same story. She had the same degree and former teaching job in Honduras. Minard told her about the coincidence.


“We’re sisters,” Libby Klooster explained.


Sisters Sarah David and Libby Klooster were vying for the same job, but rooting each other on at the same time. Both were seeking the next step in a similar journey. They grew up in Grand Rapids, attended Grand Rapids Christian Schools, earned their teaching degrees at Hope College and taught together at American School of Tegucigalpa, located in the capital of Honduras.


Two Spanish-speaking teachers with a background in Central America were too good to pass up, administrators decided. So they hired them both: David to the third-grade post and Klooster as a first grade teacher. “It was like back in Honduras,” Klooster said, noting they had taught the same grades there.


Now, both in their third year teaching at West Godwin, their passion for children and bilingual language skills serve well.  Forty-percent of students are English-language learners, and 36 percent are native Spanish speakers. David now teaches fourth grade and Klooster, younger by three years, still teaches first grade.


“It’s pretty cool that they’re sisters because they can talk and interact with their students and help each other out,” said Diamond Jean, a fourth-grade student in David’s class.


School News Network: Sister Teachers
Sisters Sarah David and Libby Klooster took similar paths from teaching in Honduras to West Godwin Elementary School

Language, Culture and Bridge-Building


The American School of Tegucigalpa is prestigious, and families pay high tuition. West Godwin, by contrast, is a high-poverty district. David and Klooster said they love helping students who are learning English, talking with parents whose culture and language they understand, and embracing the community.


“I just got a new student from the Dominican Republic and she speaks no English,” Klooster said. “So I’m so happy I can tell her what to do in Spanish, and my students are also such a help.”


David has a student from Cuba who started the school year speaking no English. “Now I have her reading huge books in English because I was able to communicate with her.”


The sisters’ ability to connect with the students in invaluable, said West Godwin instruction specialist Karen Baum.


“They both have a passion for the kids in this building and this community,” Baum said. “They have really high expectations for kids… Learning can be really challenging for some of our kids, and both Libby and Sarah work harder to make sure the kids get what they need and meet the high expectations the State of Michigan and Godwin has for first- and forth-graders.”


Sisterly Bonds


David and Klooster, who grew up in a household with four children, both decided they wanted to be teachers during a high school mission trip in Trinidad and Tobego where they visited orphanages and taught vacation Bible school. Their father is a retired Ottawa Hills High School teacher.


School News Network: Sister Teachers
Teacher Libby Klooster works with a reading group

While attending Hope, David was recruited to teach at the International School of Tegucigalpa. She taught there one year before moving to the American School of Tegucigalpa, where she taught for seven years. The school was English-immersion for students hoping to eventually attend college in the United States. David wanted to learn Spanish.


“Because I loved it so much I decided to stay for eight years and got my sister to come down,” David said. She married a Honduran man and they now have two children.
Klooster joined David after a brief time teaching on the island of Roatan. She taught in Honduras for five years, staying one year after David returned with her husband to raise their children in Michigan.


What led them to Godwin Heights ties back to their love for Honduras.


“I loved the culture in Honduras and the people were so welcoming, loving and caring and would do anything for you,” Klooster said. “The culture is something I really miss. I’m so glad we work here because half my class is ELL, and I get to talk to parents in the morning in Spanish and still feel that culture.”


David taught in Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, which is also largely Hispanic, for one year after returning from Honduras. “I knew I wanted a job where I can use my Spanish and be a part of that culture still.”


While the sisters have different teaching styles, Minard said they look out for every child.


“They both have really unique and wonderful qualities they bring to the building and are both extremely positive people who have incredible work ethic,” he said.


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Butterflies, borrowing books part of new life

School News Network - Butterflies
What to see next? Erik and Isaac Alfaro study butterfly species.

By: Erin Albanese — School News Network


Parkview Elementary first- and second-graders Erik and Isaac Alfaro spotted monarch caterpillars on milkweed plants at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, in Grand Rapids Township.


“How many are there?” asked Lisa DeMaagd, Wyoming Public Schools English Language-Learner coordinator. “Cuatro!” shouted Erik, counting to four in Spanish. Then he saw another, adding up to “cinco” caterpillars.


The brothers and their mother, Erika Garcia, soon entered the Butterflies are Blooming exhibit, where hundreds of colorful butterflies fluttered by in the Lena Meijer Tropical Conservatory. It was a highlight of their visit to the 158-acre botanical garden and outdoor sculpture park.


Eric, Isaac and their 4-year-old brother, Israel, spotted butterflies amid the leaves and flowers. Their smiles spread wide as they chatted excitedly in Spanish, spying butterflies landing on fresh fruit.


School News Network - ButterfliesThe family is taking part in the district’s annual community resource workshops, during which immigrant district students and their families are invited on community outings.


As of fall, 858 students at Wyoming Public Schools — just below 20 percent of the district’s population — are ELL students from countries including Puerto Rico, Mexico, Honduras, Dominican Republic, Nepal, Guatemala and Rwanda. Sixty-one students, including 11 exchange students, qualified for the workshops this year as students not born in the U.S. and living here for fewer than three years.


Welcome to Grand Rapids


The community resources program, which the district has hosted for more than 10 years, is funded by a sub-grant of Title III federal funding for immigrant education allocated by Kent ISD to meet the needs of new families and help them get accustomed to U.S. culture.


“We focus very much on community and opportunities for experience,” DeMaagd said.


The group, which varies each year from 10 to 40 participants, focuses on things they need to know for life in the U.S., from information about public safety to leaving tips at a restaurant. Wyoming Intermediate School counselor Christine Karas, who helps lead the program, said families find joy in new experiences and learn things Americans take for granted or don’t often think to explain.


School News Network - Butterflies“We teach them what a fire hydrant is, how to walk across the street, why Americans throw pennies in water, how to call 911,” Karas said. “It’s a lot of  basic things.”


They tour the Wyoming Branch of Kent District Library and learn how to find books and check them out, as well as about free resources and programs for card holders. They visit to the Wyoming Police Department and head downtown to the Grand Valley State University campus, the Downtown Market, Rosa Parks Circle and Van Andel Arena.


In past years, depending on funding, the program has included a summer session as well, allowing more opportunities like kite-flying, Lake Michigan trips, cookouts, dune rides, zoos and dairy farm tours.


The memories created spill over into the school day, DeMaagd said.


“Teachers have shared with me that tons of the students’ writing pieces have included elements from our program,” she said. “They are asked to write about an experience and all of the sudden they have something more fun to write about than ‘I sat on my couch and played video games.’”


Mom Erika Garcia said she values the opportunities the program provides. The family moved from Mexico six months ago.


“It’s great for the kids to learn new things in the community and to learn about the things we have in the United States,” she said in Spanish, translated by DeMaagd.


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What’s in Your Bucket?

Kindness Bucket 2
Counselor Lisa VanKampen is helping students develop a common language around bucket filling at school

By: Erin Albanese — School News Network


Every student at West Kelloggsville Elementary School has an invisible bucket. Johana Cruz explained the importance of keeping everyone’s full.


“If you’re a bucket dipper, you’re not going to have any friends,” explained the second-grader.


Students at the second- and third-grade school are thinking a lot about “bucket filling” and “bucket dipping” as they interact with one another.


“The bucket has one purpose: It holds your good thoughts and good feelings about yourself,” said counselor Lisa VanKampen. “When our bucket is full, we feel great. When it’s empty, we feel awful. Yet most children, and many adults, don’t realize the importance of having a full bucket throughout the day.”


When students fill buckets with kind words and actions, almost magically their own fills up too, she explained. But, alas, say an unkind word or act in a hurtful way, and buckets sink low. VanKampen’s “Have You Filled Your Bucket Today?” program, based on Bucket Fillers 101, is all about spreading kindness to benefit everybody.


Kindness Bucket
Compliments are free and anyone can give them

She says it’s creating a common language at school, a way for students to express their feelings and teachers to state expectations using the bucket as a symbol. Smile at someone: Buckets fill. Scowl? Buckets empty. Students learn everybody has a bucket, regardless of age.


“Bucket filling is inviting someone to play when they are all alone,” Johana said.


“It’s being nice!” said second-grader Scarlett Shepard.


“It’s giving high fives and fist bumps,” added second-grader Angel Gomez.


Filling Buckets


VanKampen has conducted two lessons in each classroom on bucket filling and bucket dipping. The idea is based on the book, “How Full is Your Bucket?” by Tom Rath, which tells of a boy who begins to see how every interaction in a day either fills or empties his bucket. The children’s book is a spin-off of an adult version written by Rath and Donald Clifton. Both books emphasize that it hardly takes any time and it’s all free. “Everyone, no matter if you are 1 or 101, can fill buckets,” VanKampen said.


Kindness Bucket 3VanKampen passed out cards with behaviors written on them for students to categorize under “Bucket Fillers are people who…” and “Bucket Dippers are people who…” Each class received its own bucket with blue slips of paper that read, “I’m filling your bucket.” Students write positive feelings, comments or compliment to someone in their class. Teachers read out of the classroom bucket to reinforce the lesson.


“I wroted one to my BFF Eaden,” Scarlett said. “I wroted that you’re the bestest friend anyone can ask for.”


VanKampen also has an interactive bulletin board about bucket dipping outside her office. She hangs bucket-filling “tear-offs” around the school for kids to have for themselves or give to others.


Third-grade teacher Bethany Kamps took the program a step further and hung buckets for each child on her classroom wall.


“I wanted to add it into the classroom because I feel like the whole culture and environment of the class really affects how they learn,” Kamps said. “When kids are treating each other positively and getting along, it makes it easier to get learning done.”


VanKampen and East Kelloggsville counselor Hillary DeRidder are hosting a parent night in May to introduce, educate and model the bucket story with the hope that it will be extended to students’ homes.


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Seniors to Sophomores: ‘Don’t Repeat Our Mistakes’

Seniors Luis Rodriguez, Tan Le and Joey Timm tell students to stop procrastinating
Seniors Luis Rodriguez, Tan Le and Joey Timm tell students to stop procrastinating

By: Erin Albanese — School News Network


Don’t procrastinate. Learn to manage your time. Do your homework. Work on getting and keeping your grades up.


Those were words of advice from high school seniors who visited sophomore classes recently to help steer their younger peers onto the right path to graduation and beyond. They explained what they would have done differently during their early days of high school, and shared what they wish people would have told them as sophomores. Wyoming High School is a 10th- through 12th-grade school, so the sophomore class is the youngest in the building.


About 50 seniors volunteered to intervene with sophomores because they noticed too many students not focused on their schoolwork, said Cheryl Small, accounting and personal finance teacher.


“My students get frustrated when they see them acting differently than they should be acting,” Small said. “They came to me and said, ‘We want to talk to the sophomores.'”
Seniors came up with ideas for connecting with their younger peers by talking about their own regrets and mistakes and the consequences of their actions.


Senior Luis Rodriguez gives advice to sophomores
Senior Luis Rodriguez gives advice to sophomores

“We are telling you guys to try hard in school,” said senior Luis Rodriguez. “When I was in your position I had Cs and Ds, and now I am like busting my butt trying to get all As. I have a 3.0 exactly, but I could have a 4.0 if I was trying in school like I do now.”


Senior Joey Timm added this: “Don’t tell yourself you’ll wait until next year to get better grades. Do as well as you can from the beginning, because it’s really hard to bring your GPA up than to keep it up.”


Destroy procrastination as a habit, said senior Tan Le.


“Students are the ones in control of what they do, how they do it and how they should do it,” Tan said. “What I wish my parents or my teachers thought to tell me was, ‘Put away your electronics for one hour and just do your homework.'”


Small said her students can be role models for the whole building and inspire younger students to be examples as well. They also shared information on applying for college, volunteering and extracurriculars.


Sophomore Lauren Kramer said she enjoyed hearing from the upperclassmen. “I thought it was nice to hear that point of view to get a perspective on what they felt they need to hear as sophomores,” Lauren said. “I feel like it’s going to help a little bit.”


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Superintendent Announces Retirement

DavidBrittenBy: Erin Albanese — School News Network


The way Superintendent David Britten approaches his job is hands-on, vocal and in a way that touches others’ lives. He’s at many athletic and extracurricular events, he’s outspoken about issues that affect students, teachers and classrooms, and he’s known for encouraging every child he meets.


Britten will continue to work hard to improve the lives and education of students while heading the small, low-income district until June 30, 2017, when he plans to retire, he recently announced.


Britten, 61, in his eighth year as superintendent, said his retirement will come after two lengthy careers in education and the military.


“I have as of this year had 42 years of two very stressful careers,” Britten said. He noted that he loves the intellectual part of serving as superintendent and working directly with students, but is tired of dealing with the state government on education issues and budgets.


His Heart is with Students


Britten is a vocal leader in the district and a public-education advocate. He is known for speaking out on many issues that affect education, and for his familiar presence in school buildings, at athletic events and extracurricular activities.


“I don’t know if I’d be retiring if I was still principal at Lee Middle/High School,” he said. “There’s a lot of energy to be derived from being around kids.


“It gets harder and harder to do that in this job,” he added. “As more and more requirements come down from Lansing, and as we have to keep squeezing our budget and cutting administrative costs, I have to take on more roles that keep me from being around kids.”


A graduate of Grand Valley State University, Britten was an Army reservist for eight years starting at age 19. He taught at Muskegon Catholic Central High School for two years before beginning active duty in the U.S. Army, which was his career until he took early retirement in 1995.


After that, Britten served for six years in Wayland Public Schools as an elementary principal. He then served as Lee Middle School principal from 2002 to 2004, which evolved into a combined post as Lee Middle/High School principal until 2008.
Big Shoes to Fill


Godfrey-Lee School Board President Eric Mockerman said the board is in the process of determining how to proceed with a search for a replacement, possibly with help from a search firm or adviser. The board is surveying parents and staff members about what they would like to see in Britten’s successor.


Plans are to post for applicants early next school year, conduct interviews around January and make an offer by spring break. “We really want to have someone coming into place by March or April of next year so we can have a couple months of transition,” Mockerman said.


Mockerman hopes choosing a new leader will be a tough decision. “We have a lot to offer at Godfrey-Lee and I’m hoping we get some really good candidates,” he said.


Britten is leaving “big shoes to fill,” he added. “It’s a tremendous loss. He’s been a tremendous and visionary leader for the district.”


The district is in the first full year of a human-centered design process, which involves exploring ways to revamp education in the district. Britten said he’s confident the process will continue after his departure.


“That was a big push by Dave to change the way we as a district think and go about educating kids,” Mockerman said.


Rebranding Godfrey Lee


Britten has been an active presence in the district, which consists of a majority of Hispanic students, as it has grown from 1,400 to 2,000 students since 2002. It has also experienced a large increase in the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, now at 95 percent, and in those who live in poverty, at 37 percent.


Britten has been at the helm during efforts to beautify the district, equip it with technology on par with more affluent schools and build community support. He also implemented a plan that helped turn high school achievement around after it was designated a Priority School, meaning among the lowest 5 percent in achievement, according to the state’s Top-to Bottom list rankings in 2010. The designation was lifted last year.


“The most rewarding part about being superintendent has been being able to rebrand this district,” Britten said. “It’s a much more successful district than people thought it was… It had a bad image. Now it’s a place people want to come to.”


Mockerman said Britten’s commitment is remarkable. “He’s been an amazing example of how involved people can be. He is deeply involved in the lives of the kids. He’s at every event going on.


“He lives for the kids. It’s amazing.”


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Schools Learn New Ways to Teach Reading

High-Performers Provide Good Models


School News Network - Reading
Practicing letters on a clear board is just one fun way to learn phonics

By: Erin Albanese — School News Network


Collaboration is the way forward, say leaders of West Michigan’s Reading Now Network. Teachers teaching other teachers, more staff with reading expertise, and learning from those whose students are excelling, are all actions the region’s schools are taking to change reading achievement numbers.


Dorothy VanderJagt, RNN field study member and director of Teaching & Learning at Kent ISD, said teachers presented best practices at the Fall Institute, share tips on the RNN Twitter feed and “are visiting other schools to dig deeper into those common traits of the high performers.”


Educators from the Field Study Team are working directly with schools that need to make big gains, with administrators who set a goal to meet or exceed their peers in two years.


The work of Reading Now Network, a collaborative effort to increase reading proficiency involving 100 districts in 13 counties, is well under way. It is paying off in districts like Kelloggsville, where additional staff and new techniques are helping students read in fun, new ways.


Source: Reading Now Network
Source: Reading Now Network

Kyle Mayer, an RNN field study member and Ottawa Area ISD assistant superintendent, said the project’s findings have prompted many schools to take action.
“Every day I come to work and I hear about something else happening because of Reading Now Network,” Mayer said.


The network was launched in the spring of 2014, examining best instructional practices at five West Michigan elementary schools with high reading success rates in order to implement them region-wide.


Schools studied ranged from urban to rural, with varying levels of poverty. They are: Brown Elementary in Byron Center, North Godwin, Lakeshore Elementary in Holland, Coit Creative Arts Academy in Grand Rapids, and Sunfield Elementary in Lakeview Community Schools.


Curriculum leaders visited the schools (all of which scored high on third-grade reading MEAP tests), over the course of an eight-month study to identify why they were high performers.


Students “arm spell,” a multi-sensory approach that helps them remembers sounds
Students “arm spell,” a multi-sensory approach that helps them remembers sounds

One District’s Response 


Tammy Savage, Kelloggsville Public Schools director of instruction, added two new reading instructional specialists this year, partly in response to information she learned at a spring RNN symposium.


Specialists Suzanne Schmier and Janna Schneider joined Sue Lathrop this fall to work full-time in the district’s three elementary schools. For the past few years, Lathrop was spread among all three schools, assisted by paraprofessionals.


The goal is to create a consistent, structured, very focused reading intervention program for students, Savage said. Teachers are using data to identify students’ needs.


Learning how to implement best practices is taking shape in different ways, said Mayer, the field study member. A sold-out event at Kent ISD in November brought together 200 area principals to learn from leaders of the schools originally studied for their reading practices.


“Principals can go back and start making immediate changes based on what they learned,” Mayer said.


Three schools where educators are not satisfied with reading results have been named “lab” schools. Field study members are working with them on instructional practices to help them improve their results, Mayer said. The schools represent three counties and have varying demographics, including differing income levels and locations.


A Peek Into a Classroom


In Kelloggsville, reading sessions are a multi-sensory experience. Students see, touch, hear, and even smell and taste the words — when letters double as licorice sticks.


During a recent class with Shmier, West Kelloggsville Elementary students acted out what they were reading. A sentence about a girl who hurt her lip had them pouting. Another about flying kites had them pretending to send them soaring.


West Kelloggsville Reading Intervention Specialist Suzanne Schmier uses many different methods and tools to teach reading

“That’s fun!” said second-grader Alyssa VanVolkinburg. “It’s fun to make the motions.”
Students wrote letters on plastic tablets, velvet and laminate; they spelled out words with their fingers and while touching different spots on their arms. They talked vividly about what they read.


The coaches, all longtime Kelloggsville teachers, were also recently trained in Orton-Gillingham methodologies, which promote multi-sensory learning.


Tools Are Available


In-depth videos with interviews from administrators, teachers and students taken at the school, are available on the Reading Now Network web site.


One thing made clear from the field study was that high-performing schools are “data-driven,” meaning they constantly used test scores and other data to improve instruction – often on a daily basis. Teachers are being trained to easily access data through an Edify software system, which Kent ISD first developed.


Enadina Mencho-Vail acts out flying a kite after reading about it
Enadina Mencho-Vail acts out flying a kite after reading about it

Kent ISD received a state grant to develop an early literacy alert and intervention system. The intent is to equip teachers participating in RNN with lots of resources to help students reading below grade level. These resources will be offered free of charge to the schools and service agencies within the Reading Now Network.




SNN Article on Reading Now Network Symposium


Reading Now Network Resources


Reading Now Network Website


Be sure to check out School News Network for more stories about our great students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan!

Student Braves ‘Train of Death’ to Come to U.S., Go to School

Kenia - School News NetworkBy: Erin Albanese – School News Network


Kenia’s story of her journey to the U.S. comes through the fuzzy lens of a child’s memory. She’s uncertain how long she traveled or even how old she was, but some things she recalls vividly: fear, thirst, hunger and preparing herself to die. It seems those things are harder to forget.


Her story unfolds as a series of unthinkable events when she teetered on the edge of death to escape the violence in her native Honduras and cross the U.S. border at an age when most American students are sitting at their school desks or headed to basketball practice.


Now a 19-year-old East Kentwood High School student, Kenia, who did not want her last name used, tells of the horrors she faced as a young girl traveling more than 2,000 miles on her own. The entire trek took months and she said along the way she was kidnapped, abused, threatened to be sold and hunted down by men who killed her father.


“It was very hard. I didn’t want to leave my country, but they killed my dad because he was black,” said Kenia. “I saw him covered with blood. I said, ‘Dad wake up, wake up,’ but he was dead.”


Her mother, who was native Indian, ran away, but eventually was killed as well.


So Kenia fled, walking for days and then riding bus after bus, before jumping onto a train that has been given the monikers “The Beast” and “The Train of Death” by those who have survived it. She climbed atop a rail car, where she experienced the blistering hot noontime sun and the cold dark of night, day after day. She doesn’t think she ever slept, because if you do, she said, you fall.


“I had to come without thinking,” she said. She left behind her grandmother, also now deceased, and other family members. “You just think, die or live? You come to U.S. or you die.”


Kenia2‘Boom, He Was Gone’


She jumped on the train in Chiapas, Mexico, more than 400 miles from her home. Hundreds of thousands of migrants, most from Central America, take the route each year. Many of them are children like Kenia. As they pass by cities and towns, some people throw bread and others throw rocks at those on top of the train.


Kenia tells her story in a straight-forward tone. It is graphic. She remembers a friend whose grip slipped while trying to hold onto the train. “He yelled, ‘Let me go.’ … I screamed, ‘No!’ and boom, he was gone.”


When they weren’t riding, the migrants walked. Kenia said she remembers tearing open cactuses for drinking water. The only time she bathed was when they came upon a lake. She said she became very thin.


She remembers a group of men grabbing her. She was among several girls captured by human traffickers. Kenia is unsure how long she was with them, but said it was a long time. One day, however, while in a park, a boy realized she was in danger. He distracted the kidnappers and she took the opportunity to run away. It was just before she was to be sold. “It was planned already,” she said. “The man who wanted to buy me, he had the money ready.”


Another incredible occurrence was when Kenia had to cross the Rio Grande, which stretches south of Texas. It was a “very angry ocean,” she remembers. Unable to swim, the currents pushed her down. “I decided I would die there,” she said. “I woke up and said, ‘Am I alive?’ A boy was holding me.” Another boy had saved her.


She and the boy crossed the border into Texas, she recalled. Immigration authorities soon caught them. She begged them not to send her home. “I was like, ‘Please let me go! Please kill me now. Don’t bring me back there.'”


She was allowed to stay. She entered a home for refugees in Texas, and then began living with foster families. She was ultimately sponsored by Bethany Christian Services and moved in with a family in Kentwood.


At School in the U.S.


Kenia never went to school in Honduras because her family couldn’t afford it. Now, she plans to graduate next year from East Kentwood High School. Her native language is Garifuna, and three and a half years ago, when she arrived, she spoke no English. Now she speaks a total of six languages, including English.


She gets very frustrated with algebra, but likes biology and learning about animals. She gets good grades, recently staying up all night to study to earn a B- in biology.


She works at a nursing home. “I do that because I couldn’t help my grandma,” she said. She wants to go to college and become a nurse. Kenia said she still has a hard time trusting people.


Teacher Erin Wolohan works with many refugee students who have backgrounds as horrific as Kenia. They’re survivors, she said. “Kenia is hardworking and has tenacity,” Wolohan said. “I think she will do well if she keeps her eye on the prize: education and full employment.”


Kenia’s not sure how she’s come so far.


“I’m alive but I don’t know how I’m alive,” Kenia said. “I’m so glad I’m here, I don’t know what would happen if I was still in my country. My country is beautiful. The people is bad.”


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Finding and Sharing the Beat

SNNDrums“Drummunity” Encourages Cooperation Through Music

By: Erin Albanese – School News Network


The beat of Godfrey-Lee Early Childhood Center students’ drums mixed with jangling tambourines, clanging blocks and sounds made by hitting sticks on household items recycled as instruments.


“Let’s all start a beat. … Here we go. … Let’s all start a beat,” said Lori Fithian, whose program Drummunity gets people pounding, tapping and grinning everywhere she goes.


Second-grader Jalyhia Reid bangs on the drum
Second-grader Jalyhia Reid bangs on the drum

As part of music class, students at the preschool-through-second-grade school gathered in a circle with Fithian in the middle, to use bongo and hand drums and other percussion instruments and to play simple drum-circle games.


Together, they made music, playing in unison. Later that evening, parents participated in a community drumming event.


Fithian, an Ann Arbor resident and artist who has studied different drumming traditions, said her concept is simple. “I help people make music together,” she said. “We basically just learn how to cooperate and come together. … It’s not really a musical thing. It’s more of a community-cooperation exercise, though we are using music to learn about all of that.”


First-grader Latrese McFerrin said she learned how to “make echoes” using instruments. “We got to switch instruments like drums and a plastic block,” she said.


Everyone Can Drum


Drummunity brings drumming to schools, libraries, community centers and other locations. Fithian’s visit was paid for through a grant from the Michigan Humanities Council.


Isabel Deleon-Magana smiles as she plays
Isabel Deleon-Magana smiles as she plays

Every culture has its own drum tradition and all ages can participate, she said. Getting students to drum with her is different from teaching other instruments.


“Everybody knows how to play drums; even babies can play drums. It’s a really natural thing that people can do together,” she said.


Students learn to keep a steady beat, and a whole lot more.


“They get a little bit of everything,” Fithian said. “They get to pound on something, play something, just explore the different sounds or learn what a drum is and how we can make music together.”


With older kids, Fithian teaches the concept of improvisation, creating new beats as they play. “We are not reading any music here; we are able to make something up with our own creativity.”


Tami Nelson, ECC music teacher, said she planned the event for her students to have the chance to make music with other people.


“This is a very good way for them to interact and see what they can do,” Nelson said. “One of the things about percussion instruments is various ability levels can easily access them. … They get to freely experience their music-making.”


Students said it was an experience they enjoyed. “I liked playing the drum,” said first-grader Taclara O’Bryant. “I like the music.”


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Evening of Science, Slime and Snacks

School News Network - Kelloggsville Rocket Science nightBy: Erin Albanese – School News Network


Colorful slime gelled and circuits connected recently during Rocket Family Night at Kelloggsville Middle School.


Five classrooms were set up with hands-on science experiments for students of all ages to experience. Each allowed youngsters to create something to bring home, such as paper airplanes and slime. Rocket Family Night is a district initiative to offer the community a free meal and an evening tied to academics.


“We want parents to get into the buildings and the district. We also want our students to know how fun some of the subjects can be if you give them a chance,” said Middle School Principal Jim Alston.


Along with going through lots of science supplies, staff served more than 250 plates of food.


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Young Entrepreneurs Create Learning Marketplace

School News NetworkBy: Erin Albanese – School News Network


West Godwin Elementary first- through fourth-grade students spent an evening working as mini-entrepreneurs at the T21 Marketplace, selling candy and other goodies, masks and chances to shoot hoops and bowl.


The event, hosted by the after-school program Team 21, introduced students to real-life concepts of buying and selling goods or services, said Betsy Berry, West Godwin Team 21 coordinator. While Berry purchased materials, students cooked, created their products, advertised and cashed out at the end of the evening. Each good or service cost one Berry Buck, fake money students had earned for good behavior.


School News Network“The purpose of learning about being a consumer as well as a producer was beyond achieved,” Berry said.



Team 21


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‘Lunch Lady’ Returns to Cook with Students

Di Szszesny instructs West Godwin Elementary fourth-graders on coating their treat in melted chocolate
Di Szszesny instructs West Godwin Elementary fourth-graders on coating their treat in melted chocolate

By: Erin Albanese – School News Network


West Godwin Elementary fourth-graders stood in line taking turns shaking a bag filled with a Valentine’s Day treat of Chex Mix and powdered sugar.


To the tune of singer Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off,” students vigorously shook the bag, while instructor Di Szczesny, “Ms. Di,” told them what they would be doing next. “We are going to take our chocolate and pour it over our Chex Mix. Pour it all in there. Shake it all in there. Everybody can stir and everybody can shake.”


Soon, things got even sweeter with red M&Ms and sprinkles.


“We’re making it red for Valentine’s Day because you’re the loves of my life,” Szczesny told students.


Students dance, giggle, grin and, perhaps best of all, feast when they learn to cook with Szczesny, who hosts cooking classes for the after-school program Team 21, which is run through a partnership with the City of Wyoming. Over the side dishes and desserts they create together, Szczesny gives attention to each student, doling out kind words and lots of silliness with instruction. Somehow everyone stays on task.


“It’s my passion. I love kids and I love food,” Szczesny said.

Jermaine Haley shakes the puppy chow
Jermaine Haley shakes the puppy chow


Meals, Manners and Measurements


Retired after 14 years working in food service for Wyoming Public Schools, Szczesny now spends her evenings teaching elementary students to cook. She leads classes for Team 21 at Godwin, Wyoming and Kelloggsville schools and in many Kent County schools through Artists Creating Together, a Grand Rapids-based non-profit organization that provides artist-in-residency grants for students with special needs across Kent County.


During Szczesny’s classes, students make kid-friendly dishes. The 14 West Godwin students stuffed and wrapped veggie spring rolls and mixed Chinese chicken salad in honor of Chinese New Year. They dipped marshmallows in melted chocolate and shook the cereal and powdered sugar-laden snack known as puppy chow. It was the first of four visits planned, so students from all grade levels get a turn cooking.


Students learn about nutrition and the value of homemade meals, Szczesny said. They learn etiquette, food safety and math skills as the measure ingredients, reading skills as they follow recipes. They must have good teamwork to hustle and get several dishes ready at the same time.


“The main thing is to eat what they make,” she said. “I focus on good nutrition and healthy habits. I would like them to be able to start dinner at home, to learn the basics.”


She also wants them to learn hospitality, what to do when you hate your great aunt’s cooking and to remember to chew with your mouth closed. “I teach them manners, to open doors for a lady, how to set a table and just to be kind to each other.”


Betsy Berry, West Godwin Team 21 coordinator, said cooking with Szczesny is students’ favorite activity.

Aryanna McCrary gets ready to eat
Aryanna McCrary gets ready to eat


“Di has a unique approach to connecting and bonding with all of the students in all the grade levels. They love this class more than any other they do in Team 21,” Berry said.


Aryanna McCrary said she learned tips on how not to burn food from Szczesny. “She is a very good cooking teacher and kids can learn from her,” said the fourth-grader. “She introduces me to new foods too.”


Between chopping, mixing, cooking and presenting, students say being a good cook involves a lot. “It’s amazing the work you have to put into it,” said fourth-grader Adrien Rochelle.


After the cooking was done and lemonade poured, students settled down to eat before heading home. “I like everything,” Aryanna said. “The salad was the best.”


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Company Reps Introduce Sixth-Graders to STEM, Skilled Trades Careers

From left, Keavion Buggs, Roshan Kami, Amarion Nichols and Emmanuel Aoudiek learn what a project manager faces when building
From left, Keavion Buggs, Roshan Kami, Amarion Nichols and Emmanuel Aoudiek learn what a project manager faces when building

By: Erin Albanese – School News Network


Crestwood Middle School sixth-grader-turned-builder Roshan Kami and his business partner classmates scrambled when their clients said they wanted an already-installed window moved from the east side to the west side of their new house.


The Kentwood Public Schools students were tasked with building the LEGO house on a $76,750 budget using architectural renderings. “We had to figure out all of the parts of this building,” Roshan said after a partial demolition and rebuild. “We had to all work together and get it done really fast.”


Students were learning what it’s like to be a project manager like Tim Johnson at Erhardt Construction in Ada. The last-minute change was to be expected. “Clients do that to us all the time,” Johnson said. “We constantly have to move and shake and figure out how to make it work. It obviously costs money.”


Hands-On Career Exploration


The activity was part of Crestwood’s sixth grade Career Fair, during which 120 students explored construction, healthcare, information technologies and aviation with local professionals.


The goal was to get them thinking about careers and what to do to prepare for them, said Nancy McKenzie, Kentwood Public Schools STEM coordinator.

Aviation professional Dan Douglas talks about working with airplanes
Aviation professional Dan Douglas talks about working with airplanes


“This is just to give them a little nibble, to plant a seed, so they can explore on their own,” McKenzie said. “It’s a nice overview of a nice variety of careers.”


Students met an airline pilot and mechanic, an IT consultant, health-care professionals and the construction company representatives. Bethany Capra, marketing specialist for Erhardt, said taking part was a chance to let students know potentials in the industry and the careers that await them.


“A lot of people don’t realize all the options in construction and the skilled trades,” she said. “These are areas that will be in high demand when they graduate.”


Carolyn Blake, Kent ISD’s Health Sciences Early College Academy diagnostics instructor, taught students blood-typing (with fake blood), glucose testing and phlebotomy. Health care is another in-demand industry.


Sixth-grader Hana Kamber said she wants to be a doctor, and was happy to learn how testing works. “You might be in an emergency and need to be prepared,” she said.

Sixth-graders Adonis Hughes and Mayson Clark learn how glucose testing works at Crestwood Middle School’s career fair
Sixth-graders Adonis Hughes and Mayson Clark learn how glucose testing works at Crestwood Middle School’s career fair


Crestwood Principal Omar Bakri said the main thing that determines whether a child will be successful is motivation, and exposing them to possibilities is the key.


“To me this is the make-or-break stage,” he said of the middle-school years. “It’s very important we introduce them to careers at this age.”


McKenzie plans to follow up with a visit from high school counselors to talk about how students can plan classes aimed at career pathways and a trip to a college campus.


“We want them to get a broad picture of what high school might look like through a counselor’s eyes, and looking at a college and then backing that up with what they’ve seen today,” she said.


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When Kindness, Compassion Trumps Grades, Touchdowns

Lexi Pearson learns shes an Alpha Wolf 11
Lexi Pearson learns shes an Alpha Wolf 11

By: Erin Albanese – School News Network


About Wyoming High School sophomore Bryan Rosello Lizardo: “His peers describe him as someone who helps other students when the teachers are busy… dedicated, kind and a helper… He gives the greatest gift one can give. The gift of time.


About sophomore Gabriel Pulaski: “Genuinely empathetic, this person is always a listening ear, and not just for his friends, but for anyone who might need someone just to be there.


About junior Ryan Huizinga: “He approaches life putting others before himself, which has not gone unnoticed by his classmates.


About junior Lexi Pearson: “One teacher said it is hard to put into words how much she has contributed to Wyoming Public Schools. Her volunteer hours have to be in the thousands.


About senior Brendan Berg: “He exerts a quiet authority in his leadership, yet at the same time, shows great humility and respect for others.


About senior Cindy Ochoa: “Attention must be paid to this 12th-grade recipient who exemplifies the actions of kindness by offering advice. She serves as a reminder that positivity and compassion are traits of a leader.

Junior Ryan Huizinga celebrates with his family
Junior Ryan Huizinga celebrates with his family


An Alpha Wolf 11 has nothing to do with grades, sports or test scores, but everything to do with being kind, compassionate and gracious to each other, said Principal Nate Robrahn. These descriptions explain why six Wyoming High School students are Alpha Wolf 11 Champions of Character. Awarded at the inaugural ceremony for the new program, students wept as they were named supreme pack leaders of the Wyoming Wolves in front of an audience of staff, administrators, Board of Education members and City of Wyoming officials. U.S. History teacher John Doyle read lengthy narratives about each student before revealing them as winners.


“On a scale of 1 to 10, they’re an 11,” he told students. “It has everything to do with what you do here at Wyoming High School. This has to do with what people you are on the inside, and making us a better community inside the walls and outside this place as you spread what this is. You all here, all 1,000 of you in this gym right now, are great young people and you have the chance to make a difference.”


Putting Character First


Doyle approached Wyoming staff with the idea for Alpha Wolf 11 after his son, Ian, received a similar award through Grandville High School’s “Ryan Fischer Be an 11” program. The Grandville program is named after student and hockey player Ryan Fischer, who died of a heart condition 2014.


Doyle was so moved he wanted to bring a similar program to Wyoming. “I was just like, ‘We’ve got to do this. It is so impactful. We are going to pull this off bigger and better. We wanted to give it back to the kids and community.”

Sophomore Gabriel Pulaski reacts to being an Alpha Wolf 11
Sophomore Gabriel Pulaski reacts to being an Alpha Wolf 11


Doyle said he wants students to realize character is the most important thing in life. “We’ve got all these awards for athletics, scholarships, band, this and that. How about just the regular kids. How about kids getting an award for simply being good?”


Doyle told students that he sees great things happening. “This school, when facing adversity, just continues to impress me. I love it here. A lot of people love it here. Continue to be kind, compassionate and gracious… It will all work out.”


His voice boomed. “That’s why this school rocks. That’s why this school is a good school!”


Robrahn, who began as principal in 2013, said he’s constantly impressed with his students. In nominating each other, students wrote incredibly powerful things.

The first six Alpha Wolf 11s are honored on the gymnasium wall
The first six Alpha Wolf 11s are honored on the gymnasium wall


“These are the nicest kids, the kindest kids I’ve had in my career,” he said. “That’s the piece we want for kids. All the academic content is important, but if we can help kids take care of each other, it’s a better world we live in.”


Six students, two from each grade at the 10th through 12th-grade building, will be named Alpha Wolf 11s each semester.


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Social, Medical Services Extend to Schools, Homes

Duane Bacchus shares a laugh with seniors Jessica Garcia and Maria Ramirez
Duane Bacchus shares a laugh with seniors Jessica Garcia and Maria Ramirez

By: Erin Albanese – School News Network


Godwin Heights High School senior Cameron Gray overheard a classmate telling Kent School Services Network community coordinator Duane Bacchus that he needed new shoes. Cameron stepped up, offering a brand-new pair of Nikes he had at home.


That kind of compassion is what Bacchus sees all the time in his job. While Cameron’s gift came unexpectedly, Bacchus regularly links students with resources they need, from glasses to clothing to food and housing needs, even mental health services. He also acts as a sounding board for students who are stressed, depressed or struggling with a problem at school or home.


“This room is sacred,” he said, of his office located in the school’s media center. Students popped in and out on a recent Monday morning. One wanted a letter of recommendation. Many just wanted to talk.


“I have a very strong open-door policy. You are welcome anytime in this room,” Bacchus tells his students. “A lot of the time it will be just kids stopping in to say, ‘Mr. B, today is crazy.'”


But sometimes it’s more serious.


“At the high school level, you definitely have the behavioral and mental health component that’s way more prominent,” Bacchus said.


The high school in September implemented the KSSN model, which includes Bacchus and site clinician Rob Conrad, to serve as a school-community link. It is funded by way of a $250,000 three-year Steelcase grant. Specific points of focus are attendance, reducing discipline referrals and suspensions, Principal Chad Conklin said.


“One of the main impacts we’ve had so far is just the opportunity to refer students and their families to services,” Conklin said. “That’s a huge impact for our students.”

Many Godwin Heights students have received new glasses through connections made by Kent School Services Network
Many Godwin Heights students have received new glasses through connections made by Kent School Services Network


KSSN, a countywide program, brings social and medical services to students’ schools and homes. It is run through a partnership with local districts and Kent ISD. North Godwin Elementary is also a KSSN school, along with more than 30 others in Kent County.


Most resources come from local churches, organizations, clinics and businesses. It’s Bacchus’ job to connect students with resources, and Conrad, a licensed social worker, links them to health-care organizations, doctors and counselors.


Someone to Talk To


Though he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Inter-American University in Puerto Rico, Bacchus’ career took a turn toward education after he and his wife had triplets. He worked as an intervention specialist at the high school for three years before the KSSN role became available. “I already had many great relationships here,” he said. “I wanted to maintain those relationship with kids.”


Much of Bacchus’ time is spent just talking to students who open up about stress in academics and social life. He teaches coping skills and refers them to Conrad if they need outside evaluation.


“This is the most stressed-out demographic,” Bacchus said of teenagers. “There are so many pressures, and social media makes it 10 times worse. You have societal pressures. They are coming from low-income, poverty-stricken areas…They just don’t know how to cope with all these pressures.”


Senior Romeo Edelen said Bacchus “knows how to talk to kids… He makes them feel comfortable. If they have a problem, he’s easy to come to.”


Added senior Carlos Martinez: “Students are always in here if they have an issue. I come in here when I get pissed off. He’s the teacher almost every student likes.”


If a student needs more, Bacchus refers them to Conrad.


“There’s a lot of anxiety and depression, stress over school and friends, and home life is tough,” Conrad said. “There are body image issues like anorexia and bulimia and self-harm.” After determining the level of care needed, Conrad refers them to counselors and other healthcare services.


Creating Lasting Links


A big mistake is to dismiss outside circumstances in students’ academics, Bacchus said. That’s why wrap-around services like KSSN are so important.

Senior Cameron Gray donated shoes to a classmate
Senior Cameron Gray donated shoes to a classmate


“I’m so passionate about the KSSN model,” Bacchus said. ” One of the biggest mistakes we’ve made our in education system over the years is to separate what happens in these four walls and cut it out of what happens in everything else. It’s so connected.


“I truly believe in the product. I truly believe in what we are trying to do here.”


Bacchus works to create resources unique to Godwin, tapping into community agencies and organizations. A native of the U.S. Virgin Islands who has also lived in Puerto Rico, he also helps the districts’ high number of Spanish-speaking students and their families with communication needs. He plans to add a room for parents who speak English as a second language to help them stay abreast of their children’s academics.


Being part of Godwin has revealed to Bacchus the amazing love and energy in the district, he said.


“The heart of these kids is just amazing,” Bacchus said. “These kids are constantly thinking about how they can help each other. They see themselves as a family in many ways.”


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Check out Kent School Service Network for further information.

The Weight of the Test

School News Network - Tests
Educators say schools should be focused on student learning, and not just how to take a test

By: Erin Albanese – School News Network


Taking the PSAT left Kent Innovation High School sophomore Anna DeBraber feeling stressed, frustrated and as if the years of work in class and the community didn’t matter.


She became so emotional about it that she created a 7-minute Facebook video to vent her concerns. Her score doesn’t reflect the real-world skills she’s developing at the non-traditional school where she gets to focus on group projects and presentations for a professional audience, she said.


“I’ve been thinking for a long time and seeing the effects testing has on the schools I’ve been to and schools around me,” she said, noting that the high school she previously attended was very ACT-focused.


The PSAT left her feeling that U.S. education has become very superficial, she said. “It gave a sort of sense that this test score, whatever you got, purely demonstrated everything you’ve done in your four or six years of upper education. It was the end all, be all. ‘Here is what you’re worth.'”


Anna’s perspective sheds light on what students face in U.S. classrooms, where they take an average of 112 state-mandated tests during their K-12 education, and high-stakes consequences are impacting them, their teachers and schools, said Bob Schaeffer, public eduction director for the The National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest), based in Massachusetts.


Schaefer and other educators believe it’s time for change.


Tests, Tests, Tests


Those words carry a weight much greater than they once did. Fifteen years ago, when Godfrey-Lee Public Schools Superintendent David Britten was principal at a fifth-and-sixth-grade school in Wayland, he and his staff used standardized test data to find patterns and to set goals.


The tests provided information, but weren’t tied to rewards or penalties. “They were not high-stakes tests by any means,” he said.
Now it’s a different story. Discussion on schools — whether affluent or poor, urban or suburban, traditional or non-traditional — quickly circles back to testing.


The U.S. upped the ante for schools, beginning with the No Child Left Behind era of the Bush administration and continuing through the Race to the Top initiatives started during Barack Obama’s first term. Scrambling to grab national incentives and avoid penalties, states have created their own ranking systems and penalties.


“I don’t have a problem with standards and accountability at all,” Britten said. “It’s this belief that putting all our nickels on the table for a once-a-year assessment like this causes us to narrow the curriculum and teach only at service level. We need to dig deeper.”


A high percentage of teachers’ evaluations are determined by testing. Schools are ranked according to scores. Students are drilled from an early age on what will be on a test, whether it’s the upcoming state assessment or the SAT, and they’ve learned to prioritize tests over other things.


Curriculum has been modified to align with the tests. Teachers are afraid to take risks and try different ways of teaching, Britten said.
“We’ve tried in the past to teach more on an interdisciplinary scale or project-based learning approach. Teachers feel that if they can’t cover the content they are going to be the ones on the carpet for how the kids perform, so they are afraid.”


Britten said there’s no doubt the testing shed light on gaps in learning and the inequity present in low-income urban schools, but it’s had negative effects which have affected teachers, students and the quality of content being delivered. With most of the focus on math and reading, science and social studies have often been set on the back-burner.


“It’s created an environment where people feel they are being solely evaluated as an organization and individuals based on one test a year,” Britten said. “You see when you walk in classrooms the sense of urgency to get things done by the end of the bell, to cover it all and hope the students retain it. The pressure is on them to make sure the test is aligned with what the state mandates.”


That urgency is misplaced for reasons greater than getting everything covered. There is research that indicates that a student’s emotional intelligence is a better predictor of future success than standardized test scores, said Northview Public Schools Superintendent Scott Korpak.


“This isn’t to say that standardized tests don’t have a place in a student’s education. They do. But they are not the primary indicator. An analogy would be of a well-balanced meal. Every part of the meal is necessary for proper nutrition. Just like our students need to be safe, physically and emotionally healthy, engaged, supported and challenged,” Korpak said.


There’s another thing to consider as well, a fact that doesn’t always make it into discussions. “I think a lot of our legislators have been sold a bill of goods by the big testing conglomerates like Pearson and others who have made billions off this test market since 2002,” Britten said.

U.S. students will take an average of 112 state-mandated tests during their K-12 education
U.S. students will take an average of 112 state-mandated tests during their K-12 education


Curriculum Dictated by The Test


Cedar Springs High School teacher Larry Reyburn is concerned that schools aren’t meeting the needs of all students. “There’s a portion of our student population we aren’t serving very well: the top and the bottom,” he said.


A long-time biology and agriscience teacher, Reyburn said students would be much better served if education was tailored to their individual needs, different from one student to the next


“We throw them together and give them all the same test,” he said. “We are so focused on getting kids ready to take the SAT and MME (which all juniors have to take) that it’s distracting…We seem to be giving up more and more of our autonomy at greater levels concerning what is being taught at Cedar Springs High School.”


Also the school’s Future Farmers of America advisor, Reyburn teaches students to grow food, tap trees and cultivate a community garden, things that are hands-on and real-world. He wants all of them to know about global issues regarding food and agriculture, and to be able to thrive in a professional environment, adapt to change, work with people, solve problems and figure things out.


“To a point, you have to teach to the standardized tests. It dictates a lot of what you spend time on. You spend a lot of time aligning things to the test,” he said.


Are Things Starting to Shift?


There are some indicators that education is beginning to lessen its intense focus on testing.


The Obama administration recently said schools need to minimize time spent on testing. New Michigan State Superintendent Brian Whiston has said he wants to cut down on the amount of time schools spend on taking standardized tests, and discussions have centered around dropping the M-STEP in lieu of a type of test educators feel is more valuable in helping students in the classroom. M-STEP results, like its predecessor MEAP, are not available until the next school year. The Michigan Department of Education recently modified its schedule for the M-STEP test to reduce the number of hours spent on the test taking and preparation.


“We have to have multiple measures and we need to change to a growth model,” Whiston said at a fall retreat for Kent ISD superintendents. “Where did I as a teacher get a student at any grade level, and where did I take them? That’s where the conversation needs to be.”


He said teachers need to assess every day how students are learning.


“And certainly, when we spend $13-$14 billion on education, we have a right to see if we’re getting value for that investment. But that assessment has to make sense, and it has to be multiple measures, not just one test, one day.”


Korpak agreed that tests like Measure of Academic Progress (MAP), administered through the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), provide better data for schools. “This test provides almost immediate feedback, and provides information to the student, their family and the teacher,” he said. “With this option, it makes me wonder why the state of Michigan has to develop their own test, the M-STEP.”


State Rep. Thomas Hooker (R-Wyoming, Byron Center) a former Byron Center High School teacher, echoed Reyburn’s thoughts.


“I think we are putting way to much emphasis on testing,” he said, noting that standardized test don’t take into account children with different needs. “The amount of hours we are taking the kids out of the classroom to test is a problem as well.”


Also, No Child Left Behind was replaced in December when Obama signed The Every Student Succeeds Act, which loosens the federal grip on education. Under the law, schools are still required to assess students annually, but there is added focus on college- and career-ready standards. It puts assessment of student performance and school rankings into the hands of the state and is based on multiple measures. Interventions for schools in the bottom five percent will also be identified and developed by the state with dedicated funding for the lowest-performing schools.


In terms of evaluating teachers, a Michigan bill passed in November, Senate Bill 103, creates new standards to evaluate teachers and administrators. Districts will have to weigh many factors, including student-growth data based on state and local tests and in-classroom observation of teachers. Though 40 percent of the evaluations will be based on state and local tests, that is down from 50 percent.

Sophomore Anna DeBraber created a video to vent about her concerns with standardized testing
Sophomore Anna DeBraber created a video to vent about her concerns with standardized testing


‘Make School More Meaningful’


Anna, the frustrated Kent Innovation High student, would like to see an education system where students can excel at what they love and become more than just good test-takers. She wants all students to be able to develop skills not recognizable through bubble tests.


“Overall, I think it should be recognized that students aren’t all the same based on the year they were born. They have individual skills that aren’t necessarily measured by the test,” she said. “If people don’t feel so boxed in, if they feel more passionate about their education, they will take the opportunity to learn more, We don’t have an environment right now where that’s the case.”


She said she likes Kent Innovation High, where she feels she is learning skills she will use in her career. “There’s a real-world audience and a way to connect with the world. It makes the work more meaningful.”


Anna thinks the state needs to recognize the individuality of every child and create diversity in learning. “One size doesn’t fit all.”


SNN Reporter Charles Honey contributed to this article.


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