Tag Archives: School News Network

School News Network: “Am I in America, really?” Refugee students leave terror behind, LOOK TO FUTURE

Wimbo Dusenge, from Congo, and Gay Htoo, from Burma, are ready to go home after finishing an exam.

By Erin Albanese

School News Network


Editor’s Note: This story was first published in August 2016


Gloria Tungabose’s eyes flash as she tells of her father, killed in Burundi. Her mother’s ethnicity was Tutsi and her father’s was Hutu, and the two groups were engaged in a bloody civil war. Her mother, Butoyi, was arrested.


“My mom went to jail and was raped there and had my sister,” said the East Kentwood High School student, describing how men measured her mother’s nose to determine her ethnicity.


The family moved to Congo, where violence also raged, Gloria said. They eventually arrived at a refugee camp in Namibia, living off rations of flour, beans, oil, sugar and salt, carrying drinking water to their shelters and going to school. She was 10 years old, and would remain there for three years.


Rwandan refugee Sifa Nyamuhungu and Gloria Tungabose join each other at the lunch table

Sponsored by a local organization, Gloria moved to Michigan four years ago, to discover a place where snow falls in the winter, people ride daily in cars and buses and where she can go to school with students from many different backgrounds. Now she can graduate from high school, go to college and become a nurse.


“I feel like it’s a dream and I’m still sleeping. Am I in America, really?” she asked. “I just have to live life and accept the reality in it. Even though the past was horrible and bad, I want to make my future better and help people in the future.”


Gloria’s story is similar to many refugee students who attend East Kentwood High School. They’ve escaped war. They’ve ridden on top of trains to elude dangerous gangs. They’ve seen family members murdered. They’ve crossed oceans and lived in refugee camps. They’ve faced religious and ethic persecution unlike most Americans ever experience.


Now they are seated at their desks Monday through Friday, reading literature, learning algebra, studying U.S. history and taking Michigan Merit Curriculum tests. They dream of careers, financial security, a future without violence.


Fresenai Haileselassie, from Eritrea; Arafat Abdikarim Yassin, from Somalia; and Mohamed Hisabu, from Eritrea, are refugee students who attend East Kentwood High School.

A Mosaic of Backgrounds

School diversity is often painted with a broad brush: white, black, Hispanic and Asian. But in Kentwood Public Schools, where students there come from 89 different countries, that picture is much more detailed. Diversity means students hail from all over the globe: from bustling Indian and Chinese cities to mountainous Balkan countries, to African tribal communities.


“We have 61 languages spoken here, which creates unique challenges,” said Erin Wolohan, an interventionist who works with students learning English. “We have many, many languages and cultures, so we have to come up with unique solutions.”


Many students speak half a dozen or more languages, a result of growing up in several countries, as their families fled areas and resettled in others. Gloria speaks Swahili, Kirundi, Kinyarwanda, English, French and Portuguese. She has already graduated out of the English Language (ELL) Learner program, and her accent is barely detectable.


“I feel great. I am surrounded by different cultures. I feel at home,” she said.


Unique Challenges

Newcomers arrived in waves to the Grand Rapids area from Bosnia, Kosovo, Vietnam and other Asian countries, Burma, Nepal and Africa. Many have moved to the Kentwood area because of housing availability. In the 8,856-student Kentwood Public Schools district there is an English-language learner population of 1,686 students, 19 percent of the district.


“For the past two decades Kentwood Public Schools has experienced a demographic shift within our student population,” said Shirley Johnson, assistant superintendent of Student Services.


One way the district has responded is to provide cultural competency training to all employees to address the numerous challenges: logistic, communication and cultural. Teachers help with transportation and in reaching parents who don’t have cars or driver’s licenses, and who work second- and third-shift jobs. The district spends approximately $60,000 annually on translation services.


Two Kentwood schools, Meadowlawn Elementary and Crestwood Middle, have Newcomer Center programs for which students receive full-time, intensive ELL instruction. The high school also has many newcomer classrooms. Recently, in ELL social studies teacher Carlotta Schroeder’s class, students from Nepal, Burma, Congo and many other countries finished their first-semester exams.


Damber Chhetra, who came from Nepal five years ago, said his family came for better opportunities. “It’s a better life. I can have a better education,” Damber said. “I like the way the teachers teach. It’s different. They are so nice to the students.” He wants to become a computer engineer.

Burundi refugee student Gloria Tungabose gets her lunch.

Students Settle Where Housing is Available

Families often live in apartments, and children who come unaccompanied by parents live with foster families and have church sponsors. Many high school students, without families to take them in, begin living on their own.


There are several reasons the Grand Rapids area became a destination for refugees, Johnson said. Grand Rapids participated in the resettlement of refugees even before 1980, when the Refugee Resettlement Act was passed authorizing more organizations to help facilitate refugee migration to the U.S. Some local agencies include Bethany Christian Services, Lutheran Social Services and West Michigan Refugee Education & Cultural Center.


Placement of refugees is based on housing availability. Resettlement agencies work with landlords to get fair and affordable housing, said Susan Kragt, executive director of the West Michigan Refugee Education & Cultural Center, located in Kentwood. Because Kentwood and Grand Rapids school districts have newcomer center schools, most refugee children end up in those schools.


School is sometimes entirely new for refugee children. Many come from non-urban areas without formal education systems, putting them behind academically. For teachers, nothing can be assumed or taken for granted, ELL Interventionist Wolohan said. Even the volume of someone’s voice can seem aggressive to non-English-speaking students.


Students have cultural differences and experiences that affect attitudes toward education, the roles of men and women and how they interact with each other. They may have never seen snow before, so aren’t prepared for cold winters. There’s also pressure from family members for teenagers to go straight to work to make money, Wolohan said. Kentwood teachers encourage them to stay in school because they will make more money in the long run, she said.


Adjusting to the Culture

A key piece in breaking down barriers is helping students and their families adjust to U.S. culture, as well as educating teachers about their needs, Kragt said.

The center works with refugee students through its School Impact Program. The program provides orientation sessions for students and parents; holds workshops for educators on the resettlement process and the cultural backgrounds of refugees; hosts panel discussions with refugee students and offers eight-week peer support groups for middle- and high-school students.

Workshops inform educators about students’ prior school experiences, and alert teachers to the symptoms of culture shock and trauma that can leave refugee students feeling isolated and depressed, Kragt said.

“Unfortunately, sometimes our kids get bullied,” she said. “We talk about the trauma of what they’ve been through, but sometimes it can be more traumatic trying to fit into a new culture… Their classmates are looking at them going, ‘You’re different.'”


Also, Wolohan added, it’s incorrect to assume students are here because they want to be. While many came for a better life, often they wish they could have stayed in their own countries.


“It’s a lonely life, it’s a hard life. They know they are better off than where they were, but it wasn’t their idea,” she said. “It’s not like they woke up one day and said, ‘I want to live in America.’ We have that misnomer that we think they should be so thankful to be here, and they are grateful, ultimately. But that doesn’t mean they don’t miss their families. If they could go back to their homeland and have it be more free, they would.”

Nepali refugee students Bhim Chuwan, Chandra Subba and Jog Sharma have come a long way to be part of the EL program at East Kentwood High School.

A Welcoming Environment

Teachers are encouraged to lead by example in the classroom, giving other students “less permission to pick on that kid,” Kragt said. “These kids are not going to be the ones going around introducing themselves to everybody. They need people to reach out and say, ‘Hey, how are you?'”


The big picture is to help students acclimate permanently. A successful school experience is crucial to refugee families’ fortunes in America, Kragt said. Without students learning English, graduating high school and going on to college, refugees are apt to stay in an “enclosed community” apart from the broader society.


But in schools where there may be 21 foreign languages in one classroom, teaching is “a pretty daunting task,” she noted.


Her center provides after-school tutoring and other programs to help students catch up. More broadly, it strives to provide a welcoming culture for refugee resettlement in West Michigan. When Gov. Rick Snyder last fall sought to pause the state’s acceptance of Syrian refugees due to terrorism concerns, Kragt accused him of “leading with fear rather than reason” in a teleconference sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan.


“We have a strong history of welcoming refugees (in West Michigan), and a lot of people are informed about refugee resettlement,” she said. “That’s allowing us to maybe push back on some of the misinformation that’s out there.”


Just walking the halls at East Kentwood High School helps dispel fears and promote acceptance. Students are often dressed in native clothes, speak their native languages and celebrate their traditional holidays, all while navigating the U.S. education system.


Wolohan said refugee students and the perspectives they bring add to the richness of the district.


“It’s an education you can’t buy,” said Wolohan, who’s had four children in Kentwood Public Schools. “What we have here doesn’t exist anywhere else. I think this is one of the most diverse schools in the country. For my own children, it’s given them more acceptance of other cultures and also a world view. It brings the world to them.”


That kind of attitude is one of the district’s core values, Assistant Superintendent Johnson said.


“We believe that our district reflects the real world. As students prepare to live and compete in a global market place, they will fully appreciate the rich differences among their peers, understand the value of diversity and be equipped to successfully interact within a multicultural society.”


SNN reporter Charles Honey contributed to this article.

School News Network: Minecraft for Geometry, Scholarships for College

From left, Andrea Ronzon-Contreras and Lexi Huerta play Minecraft Education Edition

By Erin Albanese

School News Network


When playing Minecraft: Education Edition in class, Southeast Kelloggsville students know what they’re building: math skills.


The worlds they join and build, connected via computers, require design, collaboration and awareness of dimensions.


“We are using geometry because geometry involves shapes and angles,” said Andrea Ronzon-Contreras. “In my opinion, I love it because you get to connect with people and build your own world.”


Teacher Tina Brown’s students have used the program, an educational version of the popular Minecraft video game, since January, after Brown’s $135 grant request to pay for the program was approved by the Kelloggsville Education Foundation.


Since 2005, the foundation has added $80,000 in hard-to-come-by supplemental dollars to fund projects and educational items for teachers and create a scholarship for high school students. It recently awarded three scholarships to graduating seniors: Kiara Glekle, Jaime Tiesma and Joshua Hotelling, who received $2,000, $1,000 and $500, respectively.


By hosting an annual golf outing, a Texas Hold ‘Em event and other fundraisers, as well as collecting voluntary payroll deductions from staff members, the foundation funds a wide array of projects. They include author visits, ukuleles, art display cases, technology, document cameras, video projectors and items for a classroom store.


From left, Eduardo Villagrana, Dax VandeBunte, Aaron Chaparro and Juan Ramirez build worlds together

Brown said the foundation makes possible “extras” that enhance education, such as the Minecraft program, which she wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. Next school year, she plans to use the program for assignments that also connect with the fourth-grade science and history curriculum, like building a three-tiered government and designing windmills with a limited budget.


“The whole idea is to build a foundation to give back to our students,” said Lori Martin, who is in charge of marketing for the district and serves on the foundation. They eventually hope to create an endowment.


A board of directors, consisting of Martin, a business services staff member, teacher, principal, board of education member, secretary and parent, chooses to fund mini-grant requests from teachers each fall, for implementation second semester.


Check out School News Network for more stories about students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan.

School News Network: School barbershop builds self-esteem, community

Senior Lazevious Steele gets a haircut from Duane Bacchus (Photo courtesy of School News Network)

By Erin Albanese

School News Network


Lazevious Steele sat snugly in a barber chair as Duane Bacchus used a razor to perfect his fade. The next day, Lazevious and other seniors walked across the stage sporting fresh haircuts to receive their high school diplomas.


Bacchus, a Kent School Services Network community coordinator, had opened the high school’s new barbershop — inside the men’s dressing room attached to the high school auditorium — for the first time the day before graduation, sprucing up seniors with free haircuts before their big send-off.


Next school year he plans to open twice weekly for boys to come in for a trim, and to participate in the ages-old style of barbershop banter that occurs when men gather for haircuts. Bacchus, whose job is to connect students and families with resources, has always included his own style of conversation and counseling in his duties. With the shop he’s adding a cool spin on how he serves Godwin Heights: a “neighborhood” barber where all are welcome, just like those he is used to.


“The barbershop has always been a place where nothing is off limits,” said Bacchus, who remembers “dying of laughter” from the conversations he heard in barbershops as a child. “There was a lot of wisdom and honest talk.”


Senior Gregory Sloan got a fresh style for graduation, thanks to Ace of Faces barber Chris Turner (Photo courtesy of School News Network)

Talking (Barber)shop
Bacchus, who cut friends’ hair in college for money, said he already regularly cuts several of his students’ hair. He had the idea of opening an in-school barbershop as a way to incentivize good behavior and build relationships.


With full support from the administration, he recruited his own barber, Chris Turner, from Ace of Fades in Grand Rapids, and another local barber, Miguel Estilo, who works at Maily’s Beauty Salon, to volunteer. Masonic Grand Rapids Lodge No. 34 donated three barber chairs.


Bacchus said he hopes to get more barbers to offer services, as well as a stylist for girls to get their makeup, nails and hair done for dances and special events.


“A haircut means so much to a kid in terms of confidence and your outlook on life,” he said. “You feel better about yourself, and it tends to make everything else easier.”


Turner’s also on board with helping students feel good and building up their self-esteem. “For some reason, people open up in a barbershop. It’s kind of reminiscent of a counselor. I listen and give feedback. Mostly, that’s what people need.”


Junior Sean Back snuck in for a quick trim.

‘Makes Me Feel Loved’


While Bacchus added the finishing touches to his hair, Lazevious reflected on how it felt to have someone care enough to give him a free haircut before graduation.


“It makes me feel loved and cared about,” he said. “I know Mr. Bacchus is a good barber. For him to take time out of his day to do this, it really means a lot to me.”


Part of his job is developing trust, Bacchus said.


“To sit down and have somebody take machines and run them through your hair, there has to be established trust,” Bacchus quipped. “That trust goes across the board. If you trust them to cut your hair, you trust them enough to talk to them as well.


“For me this project kind of embodies what KSSN is, making the school the center point of a kids’ life scholastically, bringing them community.”


Kent School Services Network is a countywide program that brings social and medical services to students’ schools and homes. It is run through a partnership with local districts and Kent ISD.


As they hung around the shop, students chatted.


“He’s a friend,” senior Gregory Sloan said of Bacchus. “He’s there if you need someone to talk to.”


“I don’t have to go to graduation with all this wild stuff on my head,” said senior Cameron Gray, touching his hair.


“(A barbershop) is a good environment. I think it makes everybody bond,” said senior Jamail Clark.


Next school year, students will be able to buy haircuts with Godwin Bucks, earned for good behavior through the school’s Positive Behavior Intervention Supports program.


Students with for their turns in the barber chair

School News Network: Longtime local leader, school advocate steps down

Superintendent David Britten joins students for a lesson in government in Lansing

By Erin Albanese

School News Network


David Britten remembers standing in the lunchroom at Lee Middle/High School. He was the new middle school principal after leaving an elementary-principal post at Wayland-Union Schools Schools in 2002. He looked around at the group of rowdy teenagers and thought, “What did I do? Why did I leave Wayland, where I enjoyed the job and the school and the kids?


“I didn’t understand the culture these kids come from,” he recalled. “I felt a little panicky about it.”


But Britten didn’t run away. He attached himself to the class of 2008, seventh-graders at the time, whom he called a group of funny “pain in the rears.” Among them was the first undocumented immigrant student Britten had ever been aware of in his school — a bright, high-achieving girl who already worried she wouldn’t be able to attend college.


“That group helped me understand better what was going on,” he said.


At a Halloween bash, David Britten poses sans makeup with a student.

Bonds began to grow between the retired Army officer-turned-principal and students who at first expected his style of discipline to include pushups and laps.


“Within no time I was like, ‘I wouldn’t change these kids for the world.'”


Instead, Britten has spent the past 15 years working to change the world for them — and to help them, one day, change the world.


Britten, 62, is a paradox. One moment he says he doesn’t like people, yet he’s thrown himself full-throttle into a career of helping improve the lives of some of the most vulnerable children in Kent County. He loves technology, saying he prefers to do things in anonymity on a computer, and he plans to spend a lot of time with a new robot he’s ordered. But he looks giddy at the idea of bringing his robot in to show students.


He’s admittedly cynical, but has paved the way in reforming education in his district from the ground up while shedding light on the positives in the community.


David Britten joins students during Girls on the Run

He’s a military man whose own life was shaped by the regimen and discipline of serving his country, but he is a true Lee Rebel at heart.


Where He Was Supposed to Be

Britten is stepping down June 30 after nine years as superintendent and a total of 15 years working in the district. The Board of Education recently hired Kevin Polston, principal of Lakeshore Middle School in Grand Haven Public Schools, as new superintendent, beginning July 1.


Britten has spent many days, from dawn to dusk, leading teachers in a way that builds community, and battling state and national policy he believes is increasing inequity in education. He is present in the school buildings and athletic fields attending student programs and events on days, nights and weekends.


The demands have taken a toll on his energy and fitness, but he said he never wanted to give less for the students. Until his last day on the job, he wants to be there.


Britten takes time for a selfie on the bus.

“I feel like that’s where I’m supposed to be. If I’m not there to do that, why did I choose this career?”


Lee High School civics teacher Brian Cahoon said Britten’s involvement has even extended to cooking for students at band camp and helping to chaperone 30-plus seniors on their senior trip to Florida.


“I believe Dave has touched the district by his dedication to, not only his job, but the Lee community as a whole,” Cahoon said. “I think one would be hard-pressed to find a superintendent who is as visible, and often an active participant in a wide range of student activities.”


Lee High School science teacher Steve Rierson provided a short list of Britten’s typical activities: “On any given day, Mr. Britten can be observed eating with kids, walking through hallways, subbing in classrooms, attending sporting events, interacting with parents and faculty throughout the district, even traveling to Lansing in hopes of changing policy at the state level.”

For David Britten, being superintendent was about being present with staff and students.

A Hometown Boy


Britten, who lives in Cutlerville, spent several childhood years in the Godfrey-Lee community, frequenting neighborhood stores and playing in the woodsy area near the Godfrey-Lee Early Childhood Center (where he and his staff have recently opened an outdoor learning lab.) He knows the area’s nooks and crannies, the stories of each building and street, the background of the schools and the people who have impacted them over the decades.


“I’m a homeboy who likes local history,” he said.


With more time on his hands, he plans to immerse himself in that history by writing a book about the Godfrey-Lee community. An outspoken advocate for social justice, he also plans to study and speak out against issues affecting the country and areas like Godfrey-Lee: the growing economic gap, segregation and political gerrymandering.


He plans to visit relatives he hasn’t seen in decades and, if all else fails, simply enjoy time with his wife, Penny, whose hobbies include photography and horseback riding.


David Britten is stepping down June 30 after nine years as superintendent

“If I just carry her camera and saddle around for the rest of my life, that’s fine. I owe her.”


Britten has played a big role in the district during a pivotal era in its history. During his time as superintendent, Godfrey-Lee has grown from 1,600 to nearly 2,000 students, with its Hispanic population increasing from 32 to 78 percent. In the once solid blue-collar neighborhood where many residents worked at General Motors, more than 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches.


Britten offers some historical reference: The district dipped to around 850 students in the ’90s as the community aged. After 2000, many immigrant families began moving in with large families and establishing roots.


For them, Britten and his staff work hard to make the schools the center of the community.


“One of the things I like about this community, and which seems to have increased since I’ve been here, is there seems to be a growing interest in the community from the community members,” he said, noting the draw of affordable housing, new neighborhood groups and a decrease in transiency. “This is Wyoming’s only true walkable community.


“We are interested in the community being a part of us,” he added. “If we are strong the community is strong.”


Pushing for Education Reform


His tenure has also been a time of school funding challenges, increased high-stakes testing, and other threats to public education. For these things and many more, Britten has been an outspoken advocate for improving education by getting to the root of problems. He never holds back in calling out bad policy or politicians who seem to have interests other than children in mind.


“If we are only focused on the test scores,” he asserted, “we have already lost the war.”


To improve his district, Britten embarked on a huge human-centered design project, sealing a $250,000 Steelcase grant, to study the true — as opposed to perceived — needs of families in the district. The end goal is education reform, getting students away from the 20th-century education model, truly engaged in their learning and preparing them for jobs of the future with the necessary skills. The work will continue under Polston.


“Dave has never strayed far from the needs of the community,” said Lee Middle High School science teacher Vlad Borza. “Despite the educational woes and rigors of the state requirements, he has remained an advocate for the needs of our community and bringing equity to a district in need of extra support.


“He is unapologetic in fighting for the needs of students and families, whether it is by pursuing a competitive technology program or advocating for the legal protection of those in our district. It is evident that his focus has always remained on their needs.”


From Factory Worker to U.S. Army Officer to Educator
Britten was born in Grand Rapids, the second of seven siblings. At age 4, he moved to a new Wyoming subdivision at 36th Street and Burlingame Avenue SW. In kindergarten, he attended East Newhall Elementary (later East Elementary School, in Wyoming Public Schools) before going to Holy Name of Jesus Catholic School in first grade, when his family moved to the Godfrey-Lee area.


He attended Godfrey-Lee schools through his freshman year when he moved back to the Wyoming Public Schools neighborhood, where he attended Rogers High School until he graduated in 1973.


He enrolled in Grand Valley State University and worked at Keebler Company, eventually dropping out of college until he was laid off from the factory job. One day in 1974 he and a friend, on a whim, decided to enlist in the National Guard. His friend wasn’t accepted, but Britten was.


He was called back to Keebler and worked there while also serving as a reservist. By 1977 he noticed a lot of his Rogers High School classmates were graduating college. Britten was dissatisfied.


“I thought, ‘I’m not going to do this factory stuff the rest of my life. … Standing there watching Pop-Tarts come out of a cutter all night long was just not what I want to do.”


He re-enrolled at GVSU, and recognized Penny, who had attended Godfrey-Lee, during his first day of class. He “stalked her for two days” before she asked him what he wanted. He wanted a date, and the rest is history. They married in 1980 and have one son, David.


After earning an education degree, Britten began teaching at Muskegon Catholic Central High School, but he began an active duty tour two years later. That was the beginning of a military career, from which he retired in 1996. While in the service, he earned a degree in educational leadership.


Lured Back by Schools

Soon after retiring, he was asked to apply for the elementary principal position in Wayland and got the job. Six years later he was asked to apply for the Lee Middle School principal position. He was tapped for the superintendent position in 2008, a time of turmoil in the district, when there was poor morale between the administration and staff. Britten didn’t want the job, but feared no one else would step up that could rebuild trust.


The results of his work are evident in his staff’s comments.


Britten has spent the last days of the school year with students, watching them play during field day; checking out high school seniors’ capstone projects on careers they are interested in; riding the Millennium Force roller coaster at Cedar Point amusement park with band students; attending a community event led by Blandford Nature Center focused on increasing the owl population. As always, where students and staff gather, he’s there.


He’s a voice, a presence, a fighter for what Godfrey-Lee students need to be successful in the country he served.


Just a hometown boy who likes history.


Check out School News Network for more stories about students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan.

School News Network: College Access Network help makes higher ed a reality for Godwin students

Godwin Heights students celebrate being accepted into colleges.

By Erin Albanese

School News Network


Senior D’Nyszha Brand was accepted into six colleges: Baker College, Ferris State University, Wayne State University, Grand Rapids Community College, Aquinas College and Western Michigan University.


She’s decided to attend GRCC for her associate degree before transferring to a university, maybe Ferris, to major in business and minor in psychology. “It’s the cheapest way to go and I will save more money,” she said.


D’Nyszha said she probably wouldn’t have applied to so many colleges, or realized how to meet her postsecondary goals, if it weren’t for the Michigan College Access Network representative who helped her. Jeremy Bissett had an office at Godwin Heights for 20 hours a week until mid-spring, helping students apply, submit and complete all the other paperwork to get into college.


“It was very helpful because I would go to my mom and ask her what to do and she would say, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know,'” said D’Nyszha, who will be the first person in her family to go to college.


Bissett reminded her often about deadlines and what was required. “He helped me in so many ways. Not only did he help me with my (college) stuff, he taught me different life skills,” she said. Without him, she added, “I probably would have only applied to GRCC, honestly.”


From left, seniors Josiah Lozada and Maurie Vinson, MCAN adviser Jeremy Bissett, and seniors Mya Jordan and Mamie Hai celebrate college acceptance.

Accepted, Again and Again


At Godwin Heights, students recently gathered in the hallway wearing #accepted T-shirts to celebrate their “yes” notifications. A total of 111 of the 137 seniors, or 81 percent, were accepted at 27 colleges.


That’s a great start for students at Godwin Heights, where more than 80 percent come from financially disadvantaged families and 59 percent of seniors this year could be first-generation college-goers.


Godwin Heights received an Innovative Program Grant from MCAN to fund a dedicated college adviser, Bissett. It’s just one way the network supports Michigan schools in helping students access college.


“We are super proud of Godwin’s results,” said Sarah Anthony, MCAN deputy director for partnerships and advocacy. “We knew being in that community would be serving low-income, first-generation college students and students of color.”


The goal of Lansing-based MCAN is to increase the percentage of Michigan residents with degrees or postsecondary certificates to 60 percent by the year 2025. According to 2014 Census figures, 39.3 percent of Michigan’s 5.2 million working-age adults (ages 25-64) hold a two- or four-year college degree, an increase from the previous year’s rate of 38.4 percent. This is the sixth year in a row that Michigan’s degree attainment rate has increased.


College acceptance letters hang in the hallway of Godwin Heights High School.

But there’s work to be done. According to data from MCAN, out of every 100 ninth-graders in Michigan, 73 graduate from high school on time; 45 enroll into postsecondary education within 12 months of graduation; 32 persist from their first to their second year; and 18 graduate with a degree within six years.


According to Mischooldata.org, within six months of graduation, 55.8 percent of 2016 Godwin Heights grads were enrolled in a two- or four-year college or university.


Building a College-Prep Culture


Bissett spent much of his time meeting with students, ensuring they were on track with the application process and walking them through applications for financial aid.


“The biggest benefit I see with the MCAN partnership has been the one-on-one time,” said counselor Tish Stevenson. “An adult sitting down one-on-one is immensely important.”


Bissett said he was just a piece of the puzzle. At Godwin Heights, there’s a multi-pronged effort to prepare students. It includes college visits; work to improve literacy across all content areas; and preparing students for the workforce or college by developing communication and collaboration skills. Staff provides many opportunities to meet college representatives right at school.


“It’s putting that option in their purview,” said counselor Kristi Bonilla. “We get them in tangible contact with people and places.”


“I think they are establishing a culture there that is college prep, and are getting more students wanting to be engaged in that,” Bissett said. “They are doing great work.”


After being added to the state’s Priority Schools list in 2012, Godwin Heights also put many measures in place to boost achievement. In 2016, the high school received a five-year School Improvement Grant, approved by the Michigan Department of Education, that will include allocations of $750,000 a year for the first three years and $500,000 a year for the final two.


The work is paying off. The school was removed this year from the state’s Priority Schools list, and has climbed from a 0 percentile rank in 2012-2013 to a 27th percentile rank in 2015-2016.


Said high school data coach Kristin Haga, “We are moving in the right direction.”


Check out School News Network for more stories about students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan.

School News Network: Wyoming grad shoots for the top

Basketball is Donnie Alford’s passion (Photos courtesy of School News Network.)

By Erin Albanese

School News Network


Donnie Alford owns his past with a perspective on where he comes from, where he is today and why it all matters that seems mature beyond his 18 years. The Wyoming High School senior, who graduates June 1, tells his story with the precision and detail of a writer, stating his intent to reach out to struggling young people.


“I kind of want to tell you everything, because I want to be an inspiration for kids not to give up,” he said as he began our interview.


In true autobiographer form, he starts at the beginning: “I was born Sept. 4, 1998.”


Julian and Stacey Goodson took Donnie in as a son

Donnie’s family lived on the South Side of Chicago in the Robert Taylor projects, public housing that was notorious for drugs, gangs and violence. “You couldn’t sit above a certain level in the house because you had to be afraid of stray bullets that would fly in the home,” he said. “We always tried to stay below couch-level because it was dangerous.”


Yet many residents, including his family, had few other options. “When I was 5 or 6 years old, they tore down all the the project housing in Chicago, which forced thousands and thousands of mostly African-Americans to be homeless.”


For Donnie, that piece of Chicago history was real life. After a few nights sleeping in an old Volkswagen, he joined his relatives– 14 people total – in a three-bedroom apartment where he lived for the next two years.


“My bedroom wasn’t a bedroom; it was a really big closet. I used my clothes as a bed. I didn’t get my own mattress until I was in fourth grade.”

Donnie Alford smiles just talking about basketball

Moving to Grand Rapids


Donnie’s mother, Shawntay Hill, left Chicago for Grand Rapids to search for work and a new place to live. She came back for Donnie when he was almost 9-years-old.


Life in Grand Rapids was “me and my mom against the world,” he said. Fortunately, Donnie found happiness on the basketball court.


“Basketball is my passion; it’s my life,” he said. “Basketball saved me from some rough times. If it wasn’t for basketball, quite honestly, I would probably be doing what the majority of kids that come from my situation do -– the gang and drug life.


“Basketball was like a safe haven. When I was on the court all my problems would disappear for those split seconds when the ball was in my hand.”


But that passion didn’t yet transfer to the classroom, because Donnie didn’t see the point of trying. By then, his father was serving a more than 20-year prison sentence. “My father gets out of prison when I am 24 years old,” he said. “I can’t remember a moment when my father was free.


Donnie Alford looks to Julian Goodson as a father and example

“I didn’t care about school because, why would I? I didn’t think I was going to be anything in my life.”


When Donnie was 10, his mother gave birth to a boy, Armontae, and Donnie soon embraced the idea of becoming a big brother. But when the baby was just two months old, Donnie’s mother had a stroke and a heart attack, shaking the little stability he had in his life.


Shawntay spent the next seven years, from age 31 to 38, in a near vegetative state at a nursing home, never relearning to walk or talk. Her absence left a huge void in Donnie’s life.


“My mom was like my best friend. Growing up, I was an only child. We did everything together. She was the one who taught me to play basketball.”


With his mom in the hospital, Donnie spent the next few years living with aunts in Grand Rapids and Wyoming, content to get by with D’s in school.


Teacher Kellie Self could see the potential Donnie had in her sixth-grade class, even though he battled frustration and anger.


“I remember him being a brilliant kid who was an incredible writer,” she said. “I knew how capable he was, and that he could accomplish anything he put his mind to. However, I don’t necessarily think he believed that himself yet.


“Honestly, I didn’t treat him any differently than I treat any of my other students, but he responded differently to my encouragement and nurturing -– he literally thrived from it. I kept telling him he could do anything he wanted, and just how smart I knew he was.”


Donnie Alford earned a scholarship to play basketball at Olivet College

Self remembers one particularly rough day for Donnie.


“The social worker and I were in the hallway talking with him and she asked him what was wrong. He screamed, ‘I just want to see my mom!’ ‘You want to see your mom? I’ll take you there!’ the counselor replied. He couldn’t believe we could actually do something like that.”


Self ran back to her classroom and grabbed an African violet flower someone had given her and told him to give it to his mother. “I still have the photo of him next to his mom holding the flower, with with a huge smile on his face.”


Enter the Goodsons

Fate twisted Donnie’s freshman year, when he met Stacey and Julian Goodson, foster parents to many children including a good friend of Donnie’s. They took Donnie in when he was almost 16.


“They were always on me about my grades, he said. “It was like a culture change. The first semester I had straight D’s. I finished the second semester with straight B’s.”


Stacey and Julian both reached Donnie in their own ways. “Julian did it with basketball,” Donnie said, but it was much more than that.


“He told me he cared about me and he loved me. I never had a man in my life tell me he loved me. He actually cared about me and wanted me to be great. He didn’t just see me as a kid living in his house. He felt I was his son.”


Julian remembers Donnie coming to them with a fierce sense of independence. But after learning he was part of the family, Donnie grew leaps and bounds as a student and community member.


“One of the biggest things he learned was how to be a part of a family structure and unit,” Julian said. “He showed incredible leadership among his peers and siblings. … It was really just seeing what type of potential he had. He was able to tap into his potential and he found he was good at a lot of things, not just basketball.”


Julian was the male example Donnie needed.


“Growing up I never seen a successful African-American man,” Donnie said. “I didn’t really know what that was. Julian was there to show me African-American men can be successful, because I didn’t believe we could in this world. He showed me we could. He gave me hope.”


Stacey reached him with what seemed to Donnie like super powers.


“Stacey does so much,” he marveled. “She works, coaches sports, comes home, deals with all our problems, cooks dinner and still has time to laugh and be a good mom to all of us. She’s like superwoman. … I have mad love for her.”


The love is mutual.


“I’ve seen him mature a lot, as far as being an older sibling,” Stacey said. “I’ve also seen him mature in his priorities, what they are and what they need to be aligned with as far as academics and so forth.”


For so long, college wasn’t on Donnie’s radar. No one in Donnie’s family had graduated high school since the early 2000s, much less gone to college. But as his grades improved and more opportunities in basketball came his way, that began to change. The Goodsons gave him the opportunity to play travel basketball, and his team won every weekend.

Promises to His Mother

While Donnie began to excel, he remained hopeful that his mother would someday get better. But last year, doctors informed him she was 98 percent brain dead following a major medical setback. At that point, he said, “I realized my mom was never going to be the same again.”


He and relatives made the heart-wrenching decision to pull her off life support. “I watched my mom suffer for seven years. It was quite honestly the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life.


“My mom was a free spirit,” he added. “She loved to have fun, to laugh and talk and joke and dance.”


Shawntay Hill died May 15, 2016, exactly one year before Donnie was interviewed for this story.


“When my mom died, it was surreal. I couldn’t believe it. It was literally like a part of me died. I lost my best friend and my mom at once. I didn’t connect with anyone like I did with my mom.”


He found support at school from his friends and teachers. “The thing I like about Wyoming is it’s like a family.”


Before his mother died, Donnie made some promises to her.


“I promised my mom I will graduate. I would graduate high school and I would go to college and graduate from there. I told her I would play collegiate basketball. I told her I will do it all for her, and so far I have kept every word.”

‘A Poor Kid from the South Side’

To keep his word to his mother, Donnie, a guard for the Wyoming Wolves, had to up his game in a major way. Always an energetic, up-tempo player, he described himself as average overall. But senior year, “Every time I stepped on the court I was one of the best players.” He ended the year as all-conference honorable mention and all-area honorable mention.


He also improved thanks to the Goodsons, both coaches in Wyoming, who gave him access to the gym and weight room during the summer before his senior year.


“I worked out the whole summer and my motivation was my mom.” He got up every day at 7 a.m., and headed to the track for two hours to run the bleachers wearing a 25-pound weighted jacket.


He would go home for breakfast and then head back to the gym. From noon to 2:30 p.m. he was in the weight room and from 2:30 to 6 p.m. he was in the gym. “I would make 2,000 threes a day, 5,000 free throws, I would dribble until my arms were numb. I would do sprints until my feet hurt.”


He was also inspired by varsity boys basketball coach Tom VanderKlay, who demonstrates life skills to help athletes be successful men in the long run, Donnie said.


Donnie has received a scholarship to play basketball next school year at Olivet College, where he plans to major in personal training and physical therapy.


“Sometimes it doesn’t feel real,” he confessed. “At one point I was content with being like everybody else (from similar backgrounds): I’m going to either end up in jail or sell drugs. That’s the only way out. That’s all I knew.


“Who would ever have thought a poor kid from the South Side of Chicago would go on to play college basketball?”


Always Improving


Donnie’s GPA has climbed from a 1.5 his sophomore year to a 2.7. He hopes to end the year close to a 3.0.


He’s looking forward to his next step.


“My plan is to go to Olivet and dominate. I don’t plan on being an average player. I don’t want to be average anymore. I want to be great.”


Donnie said he grateful to many people who have supported him.


“Most of the kids who come from my situation, they don’t get out of Chicago, let alone finish high school and go to college. To be the first college student (from his family) is going to be pretty amazing. I’m going to continue to work hard and make sure I am the first college graduate.


“I’m just blessed.”


Check out School News Network for more stories about students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan.

School News Network: A ‘Thank You’ from KISD

By Ron Koehler

KISD Assistant Superintendent, Organizational & Community Initiatives and Legislative Affairs


Kent County voters on May 2 turned out to the polls and expressed confidence in their schools by approving a ballot proposal that will provide crucial support to all 20 districts in Kent ISD. The enhancement millage will yield approximately $211 per pupil for each of the next 10 years, beginning with the 2017-18 school year.


Thank you!

These dollars are essential to help our schools meet the needs of students, maintain programs and create more connections to the world of work as we prepare young adults for careers.


They also create a small, but stable and reliable source of revenue for schools as Lansing grapples with perennial budget problems, which make it very likely legislators will be tempted to drain even more money from the School Aid Fund for higher education in coming years.  Currently, more than $600 million is going out of the School Aid Fund to support community colleges and universities.


Ron Koehler

The recent Consensus Revenue Estimating Conference, conducted twice a year to predict revenues available for state government, forecast slow growth in Michigan’s general fund and significant budget pressures ahead.


Just a week earlier, the Senate Fiscal Agency projected a $2.072 billion hole in the general fund budget in five short years, due largely to the road package that passed in 2015 with a commitment to use general fund dollars to augment the fuel taxes dedicated to road repair. Other factors contributing to the projected deficit were elimination of the Personal Property Tax on business and the sales tax on the difference between the price of a new vehicle and the customer’s trade-in.


Legislators are already responding to the pressure. In the wake of the bleak general fund projections, Republican Rep. James Lower of Montcalm County introduced HB4261 to divert some $430 million from the School Aid Fund to the general fund by reversing the decades-long policy of applying all tax refunds to the state’s general fund.


Amid all of this, Kent County taxpayers sent a clear message to Lansing: Education is important.  Students deserve better. We need to adequately fund our schools to ensure a positive future for our children, and our communities.


So, again, on behalf of our students and our schools, thank you. For those of us who have devoted our careers to the education of children and the betterment of our communities, it is reassuring to know our community values our commitment to this work. Cheers!


Check out School News Network for more stories about students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan.

School News Network: Kentwood’s Luke Wilcox named Michigan Teacher of the Year

Eric Wilcox

By Erin Albanese

School News Network


Math teacher Luke Wilcox, who is credited with playing a large role in creating a culture of success at East Kentwood High School, is the 2017-2018 Michigan Teacher of the Year.


Wilcox, who began his teaching career at East Kentwood 16 years ago, was honored today with the award, announced by State Superintendent Brian Whiston, at an assembly attended by students, educators and Wilcox’s family. He was selected from between 60 and 70 nominees.


Wilcox said he is thankful to many, including teachers who served as incredible mentors to him and his students, who “inspire, push and help me to grow.”


“You guys are the reason I come to school every day,” he told students in the audience.


He succeeds Tracy Horodyski, a Kenowa Hills teacher who was the 2016-17 MTOY.


Wilcox teaches Advanced Placement statistics, with a very high percentage of his students passing the AP test. He has served as a leader in school improvement since East Kentwood was named a state Priority School four years ago. Since then it has leapt from the 4th percentile mark, meaning 19 out of 20 schools in Michigan were deemed better, to the 49th percentile today.


Wilcox is also an academic support coach, and leads a group called Rising Teacher Leaders to empower new teachers. He is a recent recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics Teaching Award.


Dave Stuart Jr., world history and English teacher for Cedar Springs Public Schools, was one of four finalists for the MTOY award.


Check out School News Network for more stories about students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan.

School News Network: First KISD MySchool blind graduate pursues creative ‘visions’

Tyler Zahnke succeeded in school with help from math aide Doug Morse, left, and Nancy Calvi, Kent ISD consultant for the visually impaired.

Tyler Zahnke sat down at his musical instrument – aka, his Toshiba laptop  – and proceeded to open a wonder-box of sounds. He called it “Welcome to the Tape.”


Out the sounds came, tumbling one into the next: Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1; an announcer spouting “Hi boys and girls!”; daffy cartoon voices; a snippet of Van Morrison’s “Moondance”; and then several voices stitched together to say, “Welcome to a very special Mini Nifty mixtape, five years in the making.”


“That is how the CD begins,” Tyler said with some pride, after the soundscape ended. It was, he explained, an artistic form called “sound collage.”


“Sound collage is where you take pieces of collected audio and basically glue it together,” Tyler said. “After all, the word ‘collage,’ from French, means ‘gluing together.’”


Tyler knows whereof he speaks when it comes to sound. He creates great quantities of it, both in collage and more traditional musical forms. All unaided by sight — and perhaps enhanced by his lack of it.


Blind since birth, Tyler has turned his inner vision loose on music, as well as writing, while navigating the challenging terrain of academics required for a high school diploma.


He has done so with plenty of support from MySchool@Kent, a partly online and partly face-to-face program offered by Kent ISD that provides flexible, online learning for students with special circumstances. Tyler is the first blind student to graduate from the program – a fact of which he is rightfully proud.


“I managed to do it,” Tyler said. “I can’t believe it, personally.”


Perseverance plus Help


He actually completed his graduation requirements late last year, but plans to walk in the commencement ceremony of Northview High School East Campus, his base school, in early June. More than 35 MySchool@Kent students are expected to graduate from their home districts this spring.


Tyler finished his requirements both by online instruction and by coming to MySchool classes at the Kent Career Tech Center, where he worked for long hours with an aide on math — the toughest subject for a student who couldn’t see the shapes and angles of a problem.


Tyler Zahnke sits in on a jam session earlier this month at the Fulton Street Pub (photo courtesy of Rachel Buzzitta)

Principal Cary Stamas credited Tyler’s perseverance for his success, as well as MySchool’s flexibility and dedicated staff members who helped him.


“It starts with Tyler and his motivation and hard work to achieve,” Stamas said. “It really speaks to what our goal is, which is to try to figure out what roadblocks there are for students to achieve their goals. And how do we use the flexibility we’ve been given to innovate and alter things in a way that makes the experience something of value to them, and something of integrity.”


Flexibility also came from Northview Public Schools, where officials arranged for Tyler to enroll in the alternative East Campus school and connected him to MySchool. They enabled him to stick with the program after his father died two years ago and Tyler moved to live with his mother in Rockford.


Through all the challenges, Tyler drew on assistive devices for the blind as well as his own intelligence. As graduation came within sight, he applied himself more diligently, coming to the Tech Center three or four days a week when only two were required.


“I’m very proud of him,” said Nancy Calvi, a Kent ISD teacher consultant for the visually impaired who’s worked with Tyler since he was 3. “I’m so glad he made it. A lot of the reason he made it is he’s just a smart kid.”


A Bright Musical Mind


Tyler’s smart all right. That quickly becomes obvious when you first meet him, and he begins citing websites, musicians and authors with ease. He seems to know the Internet like the back of his hand, or rather the touch of his fingertips.


He’ll casually mention Jonathan Bowers, a mathematician and father of googology – “the study of ridiculously large numbers,” as Tyler puts it. Or he’ll tell you about the singer Imogen Heap starting a fair trade organization for the music industry that he supports, then break into singing her song “Let Go.”


Indeed, Tyler aims for a career in music, both as a studio session musician and as a composer for music libraries that provide sound for TV, radio and movies. And he plans to continue advocating for visually impaired people as a member of the National Federation of the Blind of Michigan.


He has composed numerous tracks, both solo on his Yamaha keyboard and with fellow advocate for the blind and musician Elizabeth Kazmierski of East Grand Rapids, with whom he has a longtime group they call Mini Nifty. “Welcome to the Tape” is from a longer work in progress he’s composing with her.


Tyler believes being blind and a musician enables him to see, in a sense, things other people don’t. He said he is proud of his blindness.


“I just think it’s a unique look at life,” he said firmly. “There’s a whole scene the rest of the world doesn’t seem to be knowledgeable about, a whole culture.


“Being a musician, I get to hear about composers and artists that the rest of the world seems to miss. The same goes for blindness. I know the world has discovered Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, but for goodness’ sake, have you discovered Kevin Reeves? I don’t think so,” he added with a laugh.


Check out School News Network for more stories about students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan.

School News Network: Grant, donation makes outdoor lab a reality at Godfrey-Lee Public Schools

A wooden stage is taking shape at the Outdoor Learning Lap.

By Erin Albanese

School News Network


Buffered between Godfrey-Lee’s Early Education Center and an industrial building is a swath of wilderness complete with trees, brush and a winding creek. It’s the habitat of birds, small mammals and on recent sunny afternoon, kindergartners.


“Forts are our forte,” joked Deb Schuitema, a math coach who joined in the effort with physical education teacher Julie Swanson to design the new Outdoor Learning Lab’s natural play area.

Kindergartners were challenged to make their own shelters after listening to a story called “A House is a House for Me,” by Mary Ann Hoberman. They used branches and colorful pieces of cloth to design their shelters. Some added rocks and leaves turned into decor, and, when finished, they went inside their “houses” and peeked out of the sheer material.


Kindergartners walk along the rock grotto, counting stones as they go.

Around them, another class joined a representative from Blandford Nature Center in exploring the area for bird habitats. A third class spread out on the grassy hill to read.


“We have had five different classes out here at the same time,” said Swanson, who introduces those in her classes to different ways to use their muscles and develop balance by climbing rocks and jumping from stump to stump. “A year ago, nobody would have come out here.”


The lab, planned for two years, now includes a rock grotto and a sandy play space where toy trucks stay busy excavating. And there’s a nearly complete stage made of logs. Plans are to add a slide built into the hill, a teepee surrounded by native plants, a texture garden and a student-designed nature path.


Physical education teacher Julie Swanson checks out a pine cone with kindergartners

“We really want to make this part of the kids’ everyday experience,” Schuitema said.


The City of Wyoming, Dykema Excavators Inc., and Tontin Lumber Co. donated rocks, downed trees, other materials and services. Last fall, Women Who Care of Kent County, a group that supports non-profit groups, donated $12,000 to the district for outdoor education.


Kindergartners hoisted up big sticks, adding another layer to a fort, and wrapped material around it.


“I like making homes,” said Arielly Sanchez. “We can go in them.”


As class ended, Swanson let out a huge, wolf-like howl, signaling to kindergartners that she needed their attention. They howled back, running up from their shelter-building to head back inside.


Check out School News Network for more stories about students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan.

School News Network: Rockets, Welcome to Your New (Pretty Much) School

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By Erin Albanese

School News Network


Kelloggsville High School students now have a sparkling addition to their building, complete with a repositioned entrance, new gymnasium, two-story media center and classrooms, and plenty of open space. Paint and decor reflect Rocket pride in blue and orange, and natural light streams through new windows.


Construction recently was completed on the new entrance area of the school, allowing students to enjoy the space for the remaining weeks of the semester.


“It’s amazing. It’s a major upgrade,” said senior Anna Jensen.


Principal Kevin Simmons looks out of the new media center.

The project was made possible through a $30 million bond issue passed in 2015. The bulk of it, $27 million, went toward improvements at the high school, 23 Jean St. SW, including demolition of a 1930s wing and the large addition. The entrance of the school now fronts Division Avenue instead of Jean Street. Other renovations are in progress.


A new competitive-sized gymnasium will host varsity games and allows for more practice space. The auditorium has new theater-style seating for 480. A two-story media center outfitted with updated technology will serve as a hub for learning and a community center. The goal is to open some facilities to the public.


“The district realized the high school would be a hub for the community,” said Principal Kevin Simmons.


“It’s like a whole new high school,” said senior Sadie Mitchell.


Check out School News Network for more stories about students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan.

School News Network: Godwin Heights Senior goes through the storm to see the rainbow

Grand with Grit April Martinez has come along way during her high school journey.

By Erin Albanese

School News Network


April Martinez is the kind of person who asks, “Do you need anything else?” and “What more can I do?”


She’s the student who is ever-present, often helping organize events and taking part in art shows, blood drives, pancake breakfasts, powder-puff games. Others say she’s a natural at uniting people.


“I’m everywhere,” the Student Council president said with a laugh. “I love helping people. We do events that make people happy and bring our school together and that’s wonderful to me.


Senior April Martinez will graduate on May 31

“Where they need me is where I’ll be.”


April graduates on May 31 from Godwin Heights High School, and is headed to Grand Rapids Community College for her associate degree before transferring to Western Michigan University or Aquinas College to major in political science and minor in art.


April has always had big goals and a go-getter attitude, she said, but on many days during high school, there was a lot more on her mind than schoolwork.


During her freshman year, April and her three siblings, the youngest a baby, were put into foster care after being removed from a situation involving abuse. April and two siblings moved in with an aunt, and the baby was placed with a foster family.


“I remember this day so vividly,” she said, recounting arriving at KidsFirst Emergency Shelter, in Grand Rapids. “I couldn’t stop crying. I tried so hard to keep it together. I was worried about how my younger sister was doing.


“The hardest part was my little sister being gone. When they took her, it was the worst year ever.”


April and her sisters and brother remained in foster care for over a year. The usually smiling, happy April acted out at school by being mouthy and disrespectful. She became unmotivated and depressed, even suicidal at times. She would weep silently in the bathroom at school. “There’s a certain stall where I would cry,” she remembered.


She now lives with her grandmother, and with the help of school counselors, her friends and a youth minister at St. Francis Xavier church, she turned things around. “Prayer’s a powerful thing,” she said.


April Martinez gets a hug from art teacher Deanne Base

Putting Others Ahead of Herself

She’s embraced her Student Council work with steadfast commitment. “I’m a very outgoing person, so I like to think of myself as reaching out to people who others don’t always notice and making sure people feel part of school. We’re like a family here. I love it.”


Teachers say April is always thinking about others. “She’s that person who asks, ‘What else do you need me to do?’ ” said Student Council adviser Robin Carlyle. “She goes above and beyond and is kind and considerate. Life isn’t always good for her, but she doesn’t let it get her down.”


Art teacher Deanne Basse said she has “a ton of admiration” for April.


“One of her absolute strengths is to keep her composure and poise and always looking beyond herself. When she is tackling her own aspirations, she is also equally as concerned with everybody else. It makes her a very strong leader.”


April said she wanted to share her story to help other people who face similar challenges and loss. She wants to inspire them to be strong, to turn to others for help and not give up.


“What’s coming is so much better than you ever imagine, if you take the good path,” she said. “You have to go through the storm to see the rainbow.”

Madam President?

Going through the foster care process has inspired April to become more interested in politics, and in the need for social change and to address global issues like human trafficking. She hopes to become a lawyer, and then aim even higher. Yes, that high.


“I’ve always wanted to get into politics and be President of the United States,” she said confidently. “I feel like the world can be changed. I’m a believer that we can fix the world.


“I tend to see the best in the world and people, because I love people. I love the world.”


April said her experiences have shaped her life. “They’ve taught me to be more compassionate and understanding, to be there and help people and not judge them.”


Sound like qualities of a good president?


“Maybe you’ll be interviewing me when I’m in the Oval Office,” she said. “We’ll see what I’m destined to be.”


Check out School News Network for more stories about students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan.

School News Network: Godwin Heights High School Provides Room to ‘Rest, Recharge, Refocus’

The Godwin Heights Empowerment Room is a place to rest, relax and then start thing about possibilities.

By Erin Albanese

School News Network


In a room at Godwin Heights High School that formerly served as the site for in-house suspension, students now come for help in the areas of college, career and comfort.


The Empowerment Room is a recently revamped space serving a two-pronged purpose: a needed area for decompression and quiet, and a place to think big about the future.


“It’s a humongous paradigm shift,” said school counselor Kristi Bonilla, referring to it as a place of support rather than punishment. “The hope, goal, dream of this is that kids feel like they have a place to reset, recharge, refocus and be empowered.”


Juniors Dominic Donato and Mamadee Diabate take a break.

While the room is still in its infancy, Bonilla and fellow counselor Tish Stevenson envision it as a place where students can take momentary refuge. It could be during lunch, when they have time outside of class, or when the demands of teenage life bubble over and they need to reel in their emotions. They can also use it to channel their energy into preparation for what comes after graduation day.


“We wanted it to be a center for yoga, breathing and reset time,” Stevenson said. “We also wanted it to be a place for community members to meet with students.”


Meetings have already taken place between students and representatives from college, the military and the Urban League, who helped students apply for jobs.
Yoga sessions will begin soon.


Funded by a $1,000 grant from Wyoming Community Foundation, the room’s seating area has space for reclining and relaxing, comfy chairs and pillow. Yoga mats fill a corner bin, ready for poses. Students come in for the peacefulness, to talk to the counselors and eat lunch in a quiet place.


“We have a long day,” Stevenson said. “If you are a teenager mixing in with all the other teenagers in the day, you need a break.”


Equipping Students with Lifelong Skills

Bonilla and Stevenson have both completed training in cognitive behavior modification at the University of Michigan. They are using it to help students become more mindful, aware and rational in reacting to situations.


Yoga helps students deal with stress.

The end goal is to improve learning and develop lifelong skills, plus decrease detentions and suspension using a non-punitive approach. While the school still uses detentions and in-house and out-of-school suspensions, the counselors aim to be proactive in addressing behavior issues.


Common stressors in teens’ lives include test anxiety, social anxiety, family issues and relationships. Those things often manifest themselves as behavior problems.


“Being a teenager is stressful,” Stevenson said.


Juniors Mamadee Diabate and Dominic Donato juggle between classes at Godwin Heights and programs at Kent Career Technical Center, as well as working and volunteering. They both often come to the room to relax and talk with counselors.


“I feel it will be beneficial for our students because there’s a lot of stress going on,” Mamadee said. “I definitely will use it for yoga.”


“It’s kind of a relaxing place to let stuff come out,” Dominic said, “… not talk to anyone, and just be quiet.”


Check out School News Network for more stories about students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan.

School News Network: A Year in America and Then Some

Celebrating their year abroad in America are, from left, Natale Aurtenetxe, Elisabeta Karlin, Hang Thi Minh Ha, Triet Vu, Yuka Nagai and Ayaka Kawasaki.

By Erin Albanese

School News Network


In his year of study at Wyoming High School, Triet Vu learned a lot of things about America and its education system that were much different from his home in Vietnam: the easier curriculum, the pervasive technology, the intensely controversial election. But what he valued most? His fellow students.


“I really like the people,” said Triet, a senior. “It’s so nice. I can just say hi to a random person, have small talk and we’ll be friends. I can feel like I’m getting more sociable and mature.”


Triet is one of 57 students who attended Kent County schools this year through the Educatius Group, a foreign-student exchange program operating in more than 230 U.S. high schools. It also works with some 120 universities to help students like Triet access higher education here; he has been accepted by Grand Valley State University to study nursing next year.


Ayaka Kawasaki, left from Japan, and Hang The Minh Ha and Triet Vu, of Vietnam, were impressed by how engage Americans were in the election.

The foreign-exchange experience has enriched the lives of students and their host families for generations, thanks to a variety of agencies. Boston-based Educatius has provided that experience for students from more than 50 countries in the past 10 years, an increasing number of them in West Michigan. With an office in Grand Rapids, it has grown from 39 students attending area schools in 2014 to 92 this year.


School News Network invited a half-dozen Educatius students to come together in mid-April and compare notes on their school year, which just happened to coincide with one of the most divisive presidential elections in American history. Here they weigh in on that and other, less controversial topics.

What Was Weird?

“I’m really surprised by how much you guys eat fast food,” said Triet, who as he said has become very sociable. “We had a lot of pizza, like, a LOT of pizza.”


For Elisabeta Karlin of Wiesbaden, Germany, who goes by Lisa, it was what she called “spray cheese,” better known here as Cheez Whiz. “I haven’t tried it, but I thought it was weird,” said Lisa, who attends the Rockford Freshman Center.


Ayaka Kawasaki, a junior at Wyoming High School, thought it was weird that students eat in the classroom, something never done at her school in Tokyo.


“We don’t use so many cars as you,” said Natale Aurtenetxe, a sophomore at Rockford High School. “We use more public transport” back home in Bilbao, Spain.


For Yuka Nagai, a sophomore at Catholic Central, it was weird not having the steering wheel on the right side, as in Japan. But it was much easier to get to school than in Tokyo, where it took her 30 minutes by bike, 30 minutes by train and 30 minutes walking – yes, that’s 90 minutes total.


Triet Vu

What Was Hard?


Lisa and Natale were both thrown by how often classes change. Back home they spent most of the school day with the same students.


“I like that you switch and can meet new people,” said Lisa, whereas always being with the same group, “You get annoyed with some people.”


Just physically changing classes at 1,800-student Rockford High was a challenge, added Natale: “It’s like if your locker’s downstairs and you need to go upstairs, it’s really difficult. There’s a lot of people.”

Although he found his studies “pretty easy,” Triet also found the constant class changes at Wyoming High disconcerting. “Teachers ask us to pair up and I’m like, ‘Oh crap, I don’t know anyone!’”


Yuka was taken aback by how much American students discuss topics with their teachers, so unlike the sit-quietly-and-take-notes norm of Japanese students. “If I could speak English more, I’d prefer the American style,” she said.


Hang The Minh Ha

Hang Thi Minh Ha was unnerved by having to give class presentations at Wyoming, which was way out of her comfort zone compared to students’ passive routine in Vietnam. “I was so scared,” Hang said. “I tried my best. It was good for me.”


What Did You Most Appreciate?


“The teachers were really nice to you and really helpful,” Lisa piped up immediately.


For Yuka, it was the ready availability of technology, whether working from an iPad, emailing a teacher or using Google Translate. “In Japan, we have to carry a bunch of textbooks every single day,” she said. “I thought my back was going to be broken.”


For Hang, it was being able to know more people and ask teachers for help after school. That’s not easy in Vietnam, where she said she attended school six days a week until 5:30 p.m., and sometimes evenings if she needed more help.


Ayaka appreciated the diversity of students in Wyoming. “Everybody’s different,” she said. “I like that. Japan’s so boring. Everyone’s the same.”


And What about That Election?


To a person, the students were impressed with how intensely engaged the public was in the showdown between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.


“It’s crazy how you guys have all different opinions,” Triet marveled. “American people kind of put me to shame. I know literally nothing about Vietnamese politics. We just can’t have opinions.” On the other hand, he saw here “so much protesting and so much hate. I don’t like that.”


Lisa was also fascinated by Americans’ “strongly different opinions of things. In Germany, you don’t have such a strong opinion about politics.” However, she also sometimes found the election “kind of scary,” like when she heard of people beating each other up.


Hang went to the polling place with her host father, Eddie Tauler, and was impressed. “I saw how Americans care about their government and their president. They have freedom to speak about what they think.” In Vietnam, she added, “You have to be careful what you say.”


“In Japan, I never saw government as interesting,” Ayaka said. Yuka agreed, adding, “I was so impressed that even younger people (in America) have interest in their government and politics.”


What Was Most Special?


All agreed it was the people – new friends at school and at home, with their host families.

Lisa traveled with her host parents, Shannon and Sara Moore, to see their daughter Michelle compete in Color Guard. She and Natale played on the Rockford tennis team, and Natale went camping with her host family, Matt and Karyll Russell, and helped daughters Karys and Jocelyn with their Spanish Immersion studies.


Hang and Ayaka, who both stayed with Eddie and Jamie Tauler, laugh about eating Eddie’s macaroni and cheese – “The American food I will never forget,” Hang said.


And that’s definitely not all.


“It’s really tough on them to leave, and leave the friends they made,” said Laurie Ledesma, who hosted Yuka and helps coordinate Educatius locally.


Triet agreed. “Basically, friends is what makes the year really special.”


Check out School News Network for more stories about students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan.


School News Network: Sound Engineers

Seniors Jailene Rodas-Sandoval junior Thomas Robinson and senior Ramses Larabel play “Happy Birthday” on their electronic instrument, which involves a computer program. (Photos courtesy
of School News Network.

By Erin Albanese

School News Network


Though his rendition of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” was a bit ding-y, Lee High School senior Scott Peuler looked pleased with himself as he finished the tune by hitting glass bottles filled with different levels of water with a miniature drumstick.


Nursery rhymes were the ditties of the day in teacher Steve Feutz’s engineering class, as students demonstrated the connections between engineering and sound. Senior Israel Hernandez strummed “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on a tiny harp made with wood and rubber bands. Sophomore Jennifer Pablo, juniors Paul Villarreal, Maura Mendoza and Adriana Sanchez and senior Betty Almanzo played “Hot Cross Buns” on a xylophone-inspired percussion instrument made of Pringles cans and cardboard.


Students combined innovation, precision – and a little Mother Goose – to make instruments that created different pitches and notes for the latest project in the class, which started this school year. Feutz, who has taught math for five years, has undergraduate degrees in aerospace engineering and music theory, so fitting a music-themed project into the class was natural.


“Music is my biggest passion, then engineering, math and science,” said Feutz, who sings and plays trumpet and piano.


Juniors Paul Villereal and Maura Mendoza hold up their Pringle-can percussion instrument.

Physics is involved in how sound is created, he noted. Students experimented by using household objects turned into instruments. “There’s four different instrument groups and they all sound a little different,” he said.

The class touches on many types of engineering, giving students an idea of skills needed in the local workforce. The demand for engineers and designers in manufacturing outstrips supply by at least double, according to the West Michigan Talent Assessment and Outlook report, published in September 2016. This is largely due to a shortage of graduates needed to fill vacancies for industrial and electrical engineers.

“My whole goal is to teach them what engineers do and how they do it,” Feutz said. His students learn to follow an engineering design process: come up with an idea, build, test, and improve if necessary.


Every project touches on a different branch of engineering. Students studied aerospace by designing cardboard gliders with egg containers and launching them off the school’s football stadium press box. They studied electrical engineering by creating gadgets that involve circuitry, remote controls, trains and other inventions.


They also built wooden cabinets into existing tables, now in classroom use, and spaghetti bridges, with one group of students competing in the Ferris State University Spaghetti Bridge Competition in March.


“I’ve liked being introduced to different types of engineering,” said Israel Hernandez, demonstrating how his harp strings make lower sounds depending on how taut the rubber bands are pulled. “We’ve done stuff with electricity and wiring – basic stuff – but it was cool to learn. This class gave me an interest in civil engineering.”


Junior Jeffrey Anderson plays his pan flute, made of straws and tape.

Paul Villarreal said he enjoys having the chance to make things by hand. “It helps you learn the basics of what you need to put something together. It takes math to different levels and puts it all together.”


“I’ve done things in this class I haven’t done in any other class,” added Scott Peuler.


The class started as a trimester course, but because of student interest was expanded to include Engineering A B and C, allowing the option for a full year of engineering.


It’s great for students who like to tinker and spend their time making things, Feutz said.


“It’s cool to see kids who don’t like the traditional classroom model, who really like being able to do hands-on things and build,” he added. “They essentially make a mess of the classroom, make something out of it, and make it their own.”


Check out School News Network for more stories about students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan.

School News Network: Expo connects families to local resources

Esperanza Mercado and her children, Alex, a Godwin Heights High School senior and Yra, a first-grader, make their way around the fair. (Photo courtesy of School News Network.)


By Erin Albanese

School News Network


Esperanza Mercado and her children now know how to get the biggest bang for their food buck at farmers markets this summer. Along with learning that, they also heard about programs offered at a local ministry, and talked to health-care providers and business representatives in their own community.


Getting seeds and tiny planters from representatives of Grand Valley Health Plan are (on right, back to foreground) Jonathan Morales, a West Godwin Elementary fourth-grader, mom Ana Morales, and Ashley Morales, a West Godwin second-grader. (Photo courtesy of School News Network.)

North Godwin Elementary School hosted the third annual Health and Wellness Fair with 18 vendors, including faith-based organizations, financial institutions and others sharing information on services in and surrounding the district.


“It provides lots of different resources for families,” said Principal Mary Lang. The population at North Godwin is 88 percent economically disadvantaged, and 49 percent of students are Hispanic. Barriers to accessing resources often include language and transportation, Lang said.


Esperanza and her children, Alex, a Godwin Heights High School senior; Yra, a first-grader; and Doral, a kindergartner, said they were happy to receive goodies, information and ways to connect. They used a “Wellness Passport,” which was stamped by each vendor to enter into a drawing for prizes.


Kenzie Burt, school coordinator intern for Kent School Services Network, organized the fair. “It definitely provides families with knowledge,” she said.


Check out School News Network for more stories about students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan.


Kentwood, Wyoming residents head to the polls tomorrow for millage proposals

Tomorrow both residents of Kentwood and Wyoming will be heading to the polls to vote on millage proposals.


Residents from the two cities – along with all of Kent County – will be voting on a proposed Kent Intermediate School District Regional Enhancement Millage. The property tax increase of .9 mills would be distributed to all 20 school districts in Kent County for the next 10 years. The amount is about .90 cent of taxable evaluation. For a $200,000 home, the taxable evaluation would be $100,000 with the increase being about $90 per year.



If passed, each district would receive an additional $211 per student each year, which can be used to supplement the funding that comes from the state of Michigan. School officials have stated the funding would be used to help maintain programs, improve services and meet other needs. Each school district will be able to determine how to spend the money. For more information on the district’s plans for the money, clicking on the school’s name which will direct you to the School News Network stories. For more on the millage, click here.


Godfrey Lee Public Schools will receive about $450,000.


Godwin Heights Public Schools will receive about $500,000.


Kelloggsville Public Schools will receive about $470,000.


Wyoming Public Schools will receive about $900,000.


Also, the residents of Wyoming are being asked to vote for flexible funding by opening up its library maintenance millage to help with park improvements. The city is seeking about .16 of the .39 of the mill levy to help with park improvements at four parks, Ferrand, Ideal, Gezon, and Jackson. The nearly $800,000 per year raised would be use to pay a 15-year bond of $4.4 million. The cost for the average Wyoming homeowner would be about $12 a year, according to city officials. For more about the millage, visit WYParks.com.

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.

School News Network: A strong, clear message

Aa’Naja Miller created a presentation about stuttering for her class.

By Erin Albanese

School News Network


Aa’Naja Miller knows what it’s like to be unable to get her words out right, but when she stood in front of her classmates to talk about stuttering her voice was strong and clear.


The North Godwin Elementary School fourth-grader recently delivered a presentation, “My Experience with Stuttering” to her class. She has struggled with a speech disorder her whole life, and said children often tease her because of it.


“I stutter,” she said. “I can’t help it.”


There was no teasing that day. Instead, students listened in awe. “She looked like a teacher up there,” said classmate Donnie VanHorn. “She was so brave.”


Aa’Naja and North Godwin speech pathologist Sarah Toering created the presentation to give students a better understanding of stuttering. Toering also wanted to challenge Aa’Naja to speak in front of her peers.


“The purpose for me doing this presentation is for kids to know that I stutter, and that you don’t have to rush me because I know I do have to take my time,” she said. “I’m trying, but it just doesn’t come out right.”


She explained what a speech pathologist is, and how Toering has helped her learn strategies to overcome stuttering. She told students that others who have overcome stuttering include Vice President Joe Biden, NFL player Darren Sproles, actress Emily Blunt and late actress Marilyn Monroe.


According to The Stuttering Foundation, roughly three million Americans stutter. Approximately five percent of all children go through a period of stuttering that lasts six months or more. Three-quarters of those will recover by late childhood, leaving about one percent with a long-term stutter. The best prevention tool is early intervention.


Aa’Naja Miller spoke of her experience with stuttering

Aa’Naja included an interactive activity in her presentation, inviting classmates to practice stuttering with partners. She informed them of different types of stutters:


  • repetitions, which means repeating a word like “Do, do do you like pizza?”
  • blocks, which means getting stuck on a letter, like “D-d-do you like pizza?”
  • prolongations, which means holding a sound, like “IIIII like pizza!”
  • interjections, which means adding words, like “Um, do you, um, like pizza?”


Aa’Naja also introduced strategies she uses to stop stuttering, which include talking slowly, stretching out her words, taking a deep breath before she speaks and moving her mouth and tongue lightly while talking. She often uses her strategies automatically now, without having to think about them.


Classmate Donnie said “I learned to stick up for people who have stuttering problems and don’t make fun of them.”


Teacher Lisa Koeman said she had tears in her eyes during Aa’Naja’s presentation. Hearing her speak to her classmates, confidently and knowledgeably was inspiring.


“Aa’Naja didn’t stutter once,” Koeman said. “It was amazing. It was perfect. She acted like she was up on stage and has done this 100 times before. It was just breathtaking.”


Check out School News Network for more stories about students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan.

School News Network: District faces deficit, hopes to maintain staffing

Superintendent Thomas Reeder

By Erin Albanese

School News Network


On May 2, voters in the Kent ISD region will be asked to approve a 0.9 mill tax for local school districts, generating $211 per student to maintain programs, improve services and meet other needs. School News Network is offering information on what the millage means for each of the 20 districts in the Kent ISD. Today we focus on Wyoming Public Schools. SNN spoke with Superintendent Thomas Reeder


How much revenue would your district gain from the millage in the first year?


It depends on student enrollment changes, but in excess of $900,000.


What would you spend that increased revenue on, and how would this help your students?
“Our focus will be to maintain or improve upon our current staffing related to classroom instruction,” Reeder said, noting that the amount of revenue that would go toward staffing would depend on state funding and whether the district faces a budget crunch. Gov. Snyder has proposed a 1.3 percent increase in the state per-student aid budget for schools.


Other goals are increasing the number of extended-day and summer programs for all students, “from our most at-risk to our most gifted,” with more classes and learning opportunities. Ideas are for computer, band and theater programming.


A Parkview Elementary student picks out a book at his reading level. The district hopes to give every student more learning opportunities with the enhancement millage. (Photo courtesy of School News Network)

The district is also looking at improving technology support and resources at all levels, as well as increasing safety and security at all sites with improved surveillance equipment, Reeder said. Purchasing a bus each year to keep the fleet current is another goal.


The district also would like to add more staff members to work with students experiencing mental-health challenges.


If the millage were to fail, what changes or cuts would you have to make next school year?
“We will continue to make reductions as necessary, attempting to stay as far away from the classroom as possible, but will be unable to add any programming or other resources to the current model,” Reeder said. “The impact depends very much on what decisions are made at the state level related to funding.”


The district faces a projected $910,000 deficit in next year’s budget, depending on enrollment, and has a fund balance of about 10 percent. The recommended fund balance for Michigan schools is 15 to 20 percent, according to the Michigan School Business Officials.


What objections have you heard, if any, from your community, and what is your response?
Reeder said he has not yet heard any objections. He plans to host two community meetings in April to discuss the enhancement millage and a Wyoming Public Schools November bond request that would not raise property taxes.


Check out School News Network for more stories about students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan.

School News Network: Habla Español? Your community needs you

Interpreter and translator Leonicia Rubio, left, talks with Alma Arvizu at the Godfrey-Lee Early Childhood Center.

By Erin Albanese

School News Network


Alma Arvizu sat down with interpreter and translator Leonicia Rubio at the Godfrey-Lee Early Childhood Center to talk about conferences and kindergarten next school year for her son, Eric, now a preschooler.


Arvizu, like many district parents, knows who to turn to for help: Rubio and the other bilingual interpreters.


“It helps me,” said Arvizu, an immigrant from Mexico, with Rubio translating. “I understand very little English. I can’t speak it. With Leonicia, I have very good communication with the teachers. I think a lot of parents that don’t speak English go to the interpreters.”


Needs for interpretation and translation are even greater than Rubio and the district’s other translators and interpreters can fill, so administrators are turning to a new volunteer site, ServeGR.com, for help.


The site was started by Grand Rapids-based Westminster Presbyterian Church, where Carol Lautenbach, assistant superintendent of teaching, learning and accountability, attends. It links potential volunteers with opportunities based on their strengths, passions and schedules to find the best fit both for volunteers and those who need them.


ServeGR site coordinator Heather Colletto said the goal is to fill long-term needs.


“What’s so great about the Godfrey-Lee opportunity is that for someone who has Spanish-speaking skills to put to use on behalf of the community, it’s a great lightbulb moment.”


For a school district, it’s a nice way to make outside connections, Lautenbach said. As of early March, five people had already expressed interest in serving as bilingual volunteers, which requires a background check. An orientation will be set in the near future.


Not only will it benefit the district to have more volunteers, Lautenbach said, but it will build awareness about Godfrey-Lee.


“We want to remove as many barriers as we can for people to come in and be involved in our schools. We are also hoping to show them what great schools we are. It’s good for us to showcase the good things we are doing and show that we are welcoming to everyone.”


Join an Awesome Team


Carol Lautenbach

Many ECC parents need help with communication on busy mornings and at dismissal time, Rubio said. There are often parents waiting for assistance. “It would be really nice to have someone else there to help them.”


Interpreters and translators Rubio; Susana Chapa, who works at Godfrey Elementary School; and community liaison Jaime Ramirez, who works at the Administration Building, serve as connection points for parents about their children’s education. They rely a lot on one another to fill the communication needs in the Spanish-speaking community.


“We have an awesome team right here,” said Ramirez.


In the district, 75 percent of families are Hispanic, and 40 percent of students are English-language learners. Rubio, Chapa and Rodriguez write notes and newsletters, make phone calls, and translate at conferences and other parent meetings. They help make sure parents understand complicated terminology on forms, and plan and promote events like Las Posadas, held in December.


Parents have varying levels of English, and basic skills aren’t always enough for parents to receive the information they need, Lautenbach said, especially when it is critical. It’s important they can communicate comfortably.


“If it’s an emotional issue, a child who’s not going to graduate on time, a medical issue, a fight that’s happened, we all want to default to what’s most comfortable for us,” she said, “even if we are fairly fluent in another language.”


She wants parents to receive the right information and provide as much input as possible. “We want to make sure we are providing opportunities for parents to have a full voice.”


Check out School News Network for more stories about students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan.


School News Network: Wyoming High students take tough topics with police

From left, Wyoming Public Safety Department Lt. Jim Maguffee, Sgt. Brian Look and Wyoming Public Schools Resource Officer Rory Allen talk to Wyoming High School students.

Erin Albanese

School News Network


It was a question teenage girls of color don’t often get to ask white police officers. “What do you think of the Black Lives Matter movement?” asked Wyoming High School junior Tracy Nunez-Telemin.


As part of a panel of police officers visiting high school students, City of Wyoming Lt. Jim Maguffee shared his thoughts.


Junior Tracy Nunez-Telemin asks officers for thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement.

“First of all I want to say that black lives matter,” Maguffee said. “That’s an important tenet to get across.” He said he doesn’t agree with everything the movement stands for because he thinks it draws incorrect conclusions about policing. Still, he sees its positives.


“I vehemently feel that public discourse is part of what makes America great,” he stressed. “The fact that people can come together and form a movement and call it Black Lives Matter and march in the streets and demand to be heard, man, that’s what makes us so strong. That’s not common around the world. That’s a great thing.”


No Subject Off Limits


In a country where hot-button issues have become increasingly divisive, Wyoming High School students and police officers sat down in the media center to talk about a variety of issues. Police brutality, illegal immigration and diversity on the police force were all addressed by officers queried by students. They said they have sworn to protect everyone in the community, regardless of immigration status. “We are everybody’s police,” Maguffee said.


Junior Tony Joliffi asks officers about experiences making quick judgment calls

The purpose of the panel was for students and officers to learn from each other, teachers said. Discussion spanned a whole school day with several groups attending hour-long sessions. Panelists included Maguffee, Sgt. Brian Look, Wyoming Public Schools Resource Officer Rory Allen and Officer Pam Keen.


It was part of the junior class’ annual book study, in partnership with the Kent District Library’s KDL Reads program. Students read “All American Boys,” by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, a novel about a fictional African-American teenager who is assaulted by a white police officer. The event is witnessed by a white classmate. The repercussions that follow divide a school, community and nation.


For the past three years, juniors have participated in KDL Reads, and compiled essays to create their own book based on themes from the book study. This year, juniors are writing about social justice. “All American Boys” authors are scheduled to visit March 27.


Creating Community Dialogue


Including a visit from police officers in the book study was a way to offer different perspectives in a humanizing way, said English teacher Joslyn O’Dell, adding students often have negative perceptions of police.


“Having actual police officers come in here to create a positive interaction with them will help them move forward,” O’Dell said. “It’s so important we have open dialogue.”


“We wanted to open up the communication between our students and our local police so they can start to see those perspectives,” added media specialist Melissa Schneider, who helps coordinate the annual book project. “It was a hard (topic) because it’s controversial.”


Raul Valdez inquires about diversity on the police force

Wyoming High School has a very diverse student body and addressing racially charged issues can be difficult, she said. “That’s what we wanted to teach them, (that) there are ways to have those difficult conversations that can be meaningful versus just attacking and assuming.”


About Black Lives Matter, Maguffee said he hopes a result of the movement is progress in working together. “I think it’s great that they exist to the point that we can have a good conversation about how to make things better,” he said.


Junior Raul Valdez asked about diversity represented on the City of Wyoming Police Department. The police force is made up of a majority of white males, though there are black, Latino, female and officers of other ethnicities, officers said.


It’s always a drive to match the diversity of the department with the community, Allen told students. “In reality, you guys are the community and when we talk about diversity, ideally you want the police department to look like the high school here, and you’ve got a pretty diverse school.”


‘You Guys are Doing it Right’


As school liaison officer, Allen said he has to respond to very few problems at the high school where 25 countries are represented in the student body. “You guys are doing it right… For the vast majority, everybody plays nice together… It speaks a lot to you guys. Old people like us could probably take a lesson from you guys.”


Junior Tony Joliffi said he appreciated the officers’ visit. “It was a good experience for not only me but everyone in here to hear from police officers,” he said, noting that it reaffirmed his view of police as community protectors. “It was relieving to know that the view I wanted to have of police officers was actually true.”


Maguffee said he it was important for him to attend. “I have an opportunity to come in and talk to these teenagers face to face, learn each other’s names and talk about this problem. Any chance we can do that, we’ve got to seize it, because that’s what’s going to fix things eventually,”


Check out School News Network for more stories about students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan.

School News Network: Brain Games: Focusing on Memory to Reduce Effect of Poverty

Second-grade teacher Patrick Sokol talks about how memory works with his students. (Photo courtesy of School News Network.)

By Erin Albanese


School News Network


Kelloggsville Public Schools second-grade teacher Patrick Sokol is working to close gaps in achievement seen in students raised in poverty, and he’s zeroing in on helping students develop “working memory.”


In his West Elementary classroom on a Friday morning, Sokol drew a mixing bowl on a whiteboard in front of his students. He asked them to name ingredients needed to make pancakes. They eagerly answered: “eggs,” “baking powder,” “vanilla,” “flour,” “sugar,” as Sokol wrote the list on the bowl.


“If we get those all in the bowl, we are going to be able to do something with them. We are going to be able to make pancakes. But what if there are holes in the bowl?”


He told students to think of their brains like the bowl: They need to be able to use what they put inside. “If you can’t keep those things in your brain, are you going to be able to do anything with them?”


Isaiah Wiseman and Alivia Walber work together on remembering numbers.

Sokol’s mini-lesson was an introduction to activities aimed to improve students’ working memory. That’s the ability to store and manage information in one’s mind for a short period of time, like remembering a list of items or series of number long enough to apply them to what you need.


During a game called “If I Went,” students named items they would bring to the beach or camping. On their turns, they recalled items named before them in order. “If I went to the beach I would bring food, an air mattress, marshmallows and…,” said Myana Santiago-DeJesus, remembering the items named by her classmates and adding “shelter” to the list.


They also created a string of numbers, adding one at a time, and recalling them with a partner.


Students enjoyed the tasks, taking pride in remembering eight, nine, even 10 numbers in a row, and a list of camping items worthy of the Scouts, but Sokol’s purpose is larger than meets the eye. He is hoping to “fill the gap” in memory function caused by the stressors present in many of the lives of students who grow up poor.


Sokol’s work is part of an ongoing study by Kelloggsville staff, administrators and Board of Education members of Eric Jensen’s book, “Teaching with Poverty in Mind.” In Kelloggsville, about 78 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged, qualifying for free or reduced lunch, and research shows students who grow up in poverty struggle with working memory.


That could be a factor in the stark correlation between poverty and student achievement. An analysis by School News Network as part of its series “The Burden of Poverty, a Backpack of Heartache,” shows a close correlation between poverty and performance in the 20 school districts in the Kent ISD. In almost all cases, the districts with the lowest family income levels also had the lowest scores on standardized tests.


In his book, Jensen, a former teacher who now presents on brain-based learning, explains that constant stressors affect the developing brain, “creating a devastating cumulative effect.”


“The prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, crucial for learning, cognition and working memory, are the areas of the brain most affected by cortisol, the so-called ‘stress hormone,'” he writes, citing brain research from various sources.


“Experiments have demonstrated that exposure to chronic and acute stress actually shrinks neurons in the brain’s frontal lobes–– an area that includes the prefrontal cortex and is responsible for such functions as making judgements, planning and regulating impulsivity and can modify and impair the hippocampus in ways that reduce learning capacity.”

The Jensen book study – which started by reading and discussing chapters – is a long-term project involving ongoing district-wide training, Assistant Superintendent Tammy Savage said.

A Board of Education committee dedicated to poverty is gathering information this year. Administrators and staff members are studying and attending seminars on poverty, have watched a webinar by Jensen and attended a two-day Michigan Department of Education session in November with Jensen on his book. They hope to bring him to Kelloggsville to present.
Gianchrist Mendez-Jimenez and Yuleika Gonzalez-Morales work on remembering a series of numbers. “9, 0, 1, 8, 6, and 2,’” said Gianchrist.

The goal is to apply some of his strategies in the classroom and embed tools to boost student effort and engagement, Savage said. It’s also about developing empathy and understanding of living situations many teachers haven’t experienced.

The district has long been aware of the high level of need and has worked hard to address it, she said. This is about going deeper and examining poverty from different perspectives. “There are a lot of things we are already doing. That was an affirmation for the district. We are already doing a lot of things to connect with students and parents.”
More than just brain development, training involves developing strong bonds with students, which leads to better achievement. “We are focused on student engagement, and it goes back to building relationships with kids,” Savage said. “Research has always proven that student/teacher relationship is key.”

Teachers are doing fast-track relationship builders, recommended by Jensen, in the classroom. For example, they share something personal with students once a week.


“In order to build a relationship with somebody, it can’t be one-sided. It can’t be just the students sharing,” Savage said. “Teachers have to share about themselves too. The more we share about ourselves, the more students are going to feel connected with us.”


Jensen also recommends staff members provide a favor or a show of empathy so powerful that students remember it well; invest two minutes a day for 10 consecutive days with the student who needs it most; and discover three things other than a name about a student each day, every day of the year.


Check out School News Network for more stories about students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan.

School News Network: Board Member’s Bywords: Grit, Growth, and Giving Back

Kentwood School Board Vice President Allen Young (Photo courtesy of School News Network.)

By Erin Albanese


School News Network


If Kentwood Public Schools Board of Education Vice President Allen Young was standing in front of a classroom, he would tell students to never give up. He would tell them to use the “Kentwood grit” for which the the district is known, and which he himself has used plenty of.


“I would love for them, whatever dream they have, to make sure they follow it,” said Young, a board member since 2012. “I would have to be really honest with them because I would have to tell them that life brings about changes. There are going to be hills and valleys and curves in the road, but stick to it.”


Kentwood is all about the growth mindset, meaning that people can get smarter through hard work and practice, he said. “Keep exercising that brain. Don’t let it go soft, and also don’t be afraid to ask for help.”


Young, a maintenance coordinator for Linc Up, a community development organization in Kent County, grew up in Arkansas. He remembers being an average student who struggled in some classes. “I had to throw in a little extra grit,” he said.


But his goal was to graduate with honors, which he did in 1973, and enrolled in a trade school. He then worked in the metal distribution industry for many years before working in maintenance.


He and his wife, Johngerlyn Young, have one son, Austin, a 2014 East Kentwood graduate and now a sophomore at Morehouse College, in Atlanta.


For Young, serving on the board has always been about giving back. “I’ve always had the desire to help. I followed my son all the way from kindergarten through graduation, so I have a passion for education and for young people to improve themselves.”


He said the biggest challenge of the job, which requires about 10 hours of work per week, is dealing with the limits of the budget.


“You want to try to not cut anything, but sometimes you have to do that. We try not to do it so it’s going to be a detriment to the students. It can be painstaking.”


Boards of education are the frontline for parents and community members to address issues they feel strongly about. Young said he’s happy they come to him. “I don’t really accept those as complaints,” he insisted. “I accept them as concerns.”


When asked how much the stipend for board members is, Young had to ask a fellow board member. “I didn’t have a clue!” he said about the $40 per meeting rate.


Check out School News Network for more stories about students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan.

School News Network: More Space to Study, Mingle, Connect

By Erin Albanese

School News Network


The completely renovated Kelloggsville High School is taking shape, with the opening of eight spacious new classrooms bordering a large common learning area where students can study, mingle and connect their technology.


A lounge area is a favorite feature of the new commons area.

In the new space, students recently gathered for homework and group work and passed through more quickly from one side of the building to the other. “It is like a college setup,” said Principal Kevin Simmons. Furnishings include a large projector screen, tables and chairs. There’s a lounge area and a platform for students to sit on.


“I personally like it a lot. My favorite part is the comfy chairs and couch,” said freshman Alexandria Demond.


“It’s really cool, the chairs and all the open space we get,” said freshman Tony Cortez.


“If you have extra work, you can do it here and chill with friends,” added senior Terry Michael.


The district started construction last spring on high school improvements, funded by a $33.9 million bond issue passed last February. Of that, $27 million is going into improvements of the high school at 23 Jean St. SW.


The new space is decorated in school colors, blue and orange.

“This is exciting. The most exciting part was coming back from winter break and watching the kids react,” Simmons said.


Still-to-come improvements, to be completed by fall, include a new competitive-sized gymnasium with a second-floor track. The gym will host varsity games, which are currently held at Kelloggsville Middle School, and allow for more practice space. The auditorium will receive theater-style seating for 480; and a media center will serve as a hub for learning and community center. Use of facilities will be open to the public.


Other highlights are a reconfigured parking lot and a new school entrance, relocated from Jean Street to Division Avenue.


Check out School News Network for more stories about students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan.

School News Network: The Beat Goes On for 450 Godfrey-Lee students

Students are using the instruments in class and for performing.

By Erin Albanese

School News Network


Second-graders found the beat playing together on tube-like instruments called boomwhackers, tubano drums, glockenspiels and xylophones to the song, “Welcome back! I’m glad you’re here. Come and listen with your ear!”


Students take turns on the xylophones

Thanks to a grant from the Michigan Youth Arts and the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, the Godfrey-Lee Early Childhood Center received $1,457 to purchase new instruments for the young fives through second grade music classes.


The new instruments provide the chance for group activities like making sound effects and creating songs to go along with children’s literature, said music teacher Tami Nelson, who is planning many music-making opportunities for her 450 students, including public performances.


“It’s really nice and it’s awesome we get new drums and new stuff to play,” said second-grader Arianna Wheeler. “We were needing some new stuff. It was nice of them to give us new instruments.”


The majority Hispanic district has a large number of students who speak English as a second language. Through music, they can express themselves non-verbally, Nelson said.


Also, many students aren’t exposed to instruments outside of school. Many families in the community do not have access to instruments in their homes or the funds to purchase instruments for their own personal use, Nelson added.


Check out School News Network for more stories about students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan.


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.

Cultural Club: Everyday at East Kentwood High School is an international gathering

Students from Bosnia gather around their flag. (Photo courtesy of School News Network.)

By Erin Albanese

School News Network


With flags hoisted high and signs declaring “We Are EK” in different languages, nearly 100 district high school students gathered for a photo. It was a proud display of culture for students who accepted the invitation to represent their flag.


“This is one of the chances to express my culture freely,” said Salem Tessema, a junior from Ethiopia.


It was the culminating activity of the school’s inaugural Culture Week, a celebration and chance for students to share their food, flags, clothing and, at a deeper level, dialogue on what home, traditions and current events mean to them.


While flags waved, students, many dressed in sparkling and colorful traditional clothes, mingled and munched on ethnic foods. They represented the countries they are from: Nepal, Burma, China, Thailand, Bosnia, Congo and many more.


Bizuaye Hu and Salem Tessema are dressed for their Ethiopian culture. (Photo courtesy of School News Network.)

“We wanted to increase awareness about what amazing cultures we have at this school,” said Student Council member Allison Biss. “It’s to gather everyone together, embrace culture and put it on display for everyone in the school.”


Organized by a committee of Student Council members who partnered with English language-learner students, the week opened with “What It’s Like to Be in My Shoes,” discussions held over lunch periods for two days. Students, many of whom are immigrants, shared thoughts on topics around diversity such as cultural appropriation, international relationships, religion, gender roles and the U.S. presidential election.


The timing was right following the divisive election. Students at East Kentwood come from 89 countries and represent several religions, said Advanced Teen Leadership and Student Council teacher Mel Trombley.


“After the election, things were really heated here, so we were trying to figure out the best way to do things,” Trombley said. “It was incredible. … I have not been with a group of adults that had discourse like they did. It was very connected and personal. Kids were really geeked to be a part of it. … It’s so empowering to just be able to talk.”


About 89 different cultures are represented at East Kentwood High School. (Photo courtesy of School News Network.)

Teachers discussed diversity issues in classes, students played a “guess-which-country-the-flag-is-from” game in the cafeteria and answered “If there is one thing I want people to know about my culture it is…” to hang in the hallway.


“I learned a lot about how people felt about their own countries, how people were criticized for their culture,” said Student Council member Ana Tran. “I didn’t know they had to go through all those things.”


Added junior Kylie Dunn, also a Student Council member, “We walk around every day with all these people, but we don’t really know about them. … We got to learn about their culture because when you grow up all you know is yours. It was nice to hear other people’s perspectives.”


Trombley hopes Culture Week will become a tradition Student Council can build on each year. “It’s just the perfect example of how beautiful of a microcosm Kentwood is,” he said.


Check out School News Network for more stories about students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan.

School News Network: A Taste of Mexican Christmas

Principal Peter Geerling helps serve traditional Mexican foods to families at Godfrey-Lee Early Education Center.

By Erin Albanese

School News Network


The group stood outside the door of the Godfrey-Lee Early Childhood Center media center. In Spanish, they sang, “In the name of heaven I ask you for shelter, for my beloved wife can go no farther.”


Inside, through the door’s window, another group responded, “This is not an inn. Get on with you. I cannot open the door. You might be a rogue.”


The back-and-forth song continued until someone opened the door, and the parents created a procession to the school’s gymnasium for a feast and fiesta.


Here in the school hallway, parents of preschool through second-grade students were re-enacting the Christmas story of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter at an inn in Bethlehem. They were kicking off the nine-day traditional Mexican holiday observance called Las Posadas, and giving teachers a taste of the season as celebrated in their native country.


Kindergartner Sanely Gonzalez plays with the Nativity

Las Posadas, which means “the inns” in English, precedes Christmas from Dec. 16 to Dec. 24. In Mexico, customarily, a couple dressed as Mary and Joseph knock on homes designated as inns, singing the song until someone lets the couple in.


In Godfrey-Lee, a majority Hispanic district, the volunteer-led evening event was an opportunity for parents to teach school staff members their traditions.


“We learn from each other about culture and food,” said Leonicia Rubio, an interpreter at the school. “Our parents want to share with teachers our traditions.”


After the procession comes fiesta time.

Teaching the Teachers

Dunce Pineda came with her daughters, high-school student Crystal Gonzalez and kindergartner Janely Gonzalez. Pineda said she has fond memories of carrying the Nativity set in Mexico and going from house to house. She likes that the tradition is being carried forward to young people. “I like that the kids get to learn the traditions of Mexico,” she said.


Parents served sizzling homemade dishes and treats including tamales, tacos, sweet bread called concha, Mexican fried cookies called bunuelo, and hot punch called ponche navideno.


“It’s really just bringing people together to build understanding and relationships,” said second-grade teacher Andrea Hall. “This is honoring the strengths our families are bringing to us.”


First-grade teacher Deedee Stasiak said staff members spend every school day with their students, often without knowing some of their treasured holiday traditions. Observing Las Posadas together was a great way to learn more about families and how their students spend the Christmas season, she said.


“I think it’s absolutely wonderful,” Stasiak said. “They feel really special being able to teach us something for a change.”


Check out School News Network for more stories about students, schools, and faculty in West Michigan.

School News Network: He Pushes Students to Excel, with Pushups and ‘Geronimo!’

Troy Anderson directs the Kelloggsville High School band Drop and Give Me Five.
Troy Anderson directs the Kelloggsville High School band Drop and Give Me Five.

By Erin Albanese

School News Network


When it comes to encouraging students to give it their all, band director Troy Anderson says take the leap and yell “Geronimo!”


By that he means hold nothing back. Blow those horns and pound those drums with gusto.


“Why are you so scared of making a mistake?” Anderson recently asked his Kelloggsville High School band students as they were learning a song. “Please stop being scared of making a mistake. I need you to play big, whether it’s right or wrong. Geronimo. Jump please.”


Anderson leads his middle and high school bands by expecting the best, but still letting students know getting there is a messy process. Mistakes are part of the experience. He finds himself giving the Geronimo speech quite often.


“It’s a way to get them to realize that there are certain things that just aren’t that serious,” he said. As a student Anderson was timid about performing, and, as a result, missed out on experiences. “A lot of times they make mistakes because they’re scared,” he added.


Notes of Praise

Comments from some of director Troy Anderson’s band members, as compiled by fellow musician and student journalist Alexandrea Groters:

  • Lidia Torres, a senior clarinet player, said Anderson helped her open up and come out of her shell. “He has given every student an opportunity to be a part of the band,” Lidia said. Even if they had financial needs and didn’t own an instrument, “He found a way so that no kid would feel left out.”
  • Grady Sakshaug, a junior trombonist, said Anderson makes sure everyone understands the music, with a sense of humor. “He forms a connection with the students.”
  • His passion for students shines through, said Nyla Buggs, a sophomore trombonist. “(He’s) not negative in any way and he always tries to help out in any way he can.”




Instructing Lifelong Musicians

Anderson has spent the last dozen years encouraging Kelloggsville sixth- through 12th-grade bands to take the leap. During that time, band numbers have grown at all grade levels, even tripling at the middle school.


A trombonist, drummer, music writer and gospel music lover, the Northview High School graduate received his degree in instrumental music education at Western Illinois University.


Students are encouraged to go big in Troy Anderson band.
Students are encouraged to go big in Troy Anderson band.

He now directs 264 students with help from assistant band director Amanda VanderMeulen. When Anderson started, there were 64 students in the high school band. Numbers in recent years have ranged between the 80s and 90s. At the middle school, numbers have grown from 27 to about 75 sixth-graders, from 30 to about 60 seventh-graders and from 15 to 50 eighth-graders.


Since his first year, Anderson has opened the high school band room during lunch to everyone, even non-band students, welcoming them to eat and hang out. People schoolwide became more aware of the band.


“You open it up, you let people in,” he said. “It changed a lot of things. It got to a point that we started to get asked to different events we normally didn’t do. … They got to know the kids.”


First- and second-place competition finishes have been numerous, but Anderson said it’s much more important to him to see music become a lifelong part of students’ lives. With middle school students he’s witnessed many moments when students first realize they can play and perform. “I get kids who don’t say a word and by the time they graduate they are section leaders, or drum majors.”


He often watches performances of former students who have gone on to pursue music careers and degrees. “That to me is the best thing,” he tells students. “That you enjoyed it so much here that you’re willing to go on (with music) from here.'”


Anderson’s dedication impresses middle school Principal Jim Alston.


“His passion for the music and band in general is contagious,” Alston said. “So when he travels to the elementary buildings to talk to incoming middle school students, the majority want to take part in band because they see his passion for music.”

Despite his openness to trial and error, Anderson demands accountability, from his students and from himself — with pushups.


While holding his podium during class, he performed five fast standing pushups after high school band students let him know he had forgotten to pause in the song they were practicing. If a student makes a mistake on the field they drop and give him five or run laps.


One time Anderson owed his students 25 pushups, which he did on the football field during marching band practice. “None of us are above the rules, we all have to follow them, even me,” he said.


Alston said Anderson provides the right mix of nurturing and high standards.


“He impacts them as musicians by allowing them to grow. He challenges them to get better every day. Those students benefit from his teaching style of holding them accountable for the music material, but building great positive relationships with them at the same time.”


Those relationships continue after graduation, Alston added: “Troy always has someone coming back to see him and talk to him.”


Alexandrea Groters rehearses.
Alexandrea Groters rehearses.

Music and Burger King

Anderson, who has performed around the nation and the world, is the music minister at Shepherd’s Arm Ministries and writes music for other churches. He plays drums for the Flat River Big Band, trombone for Big Band Nouveau and in the Grand Rapids Symphonic Band.


But he became inspired to become a teacher while working at Burger King for 10 years, beginning at age 10. He became a trainer and manager by 18, and the job served as an anchor as he worked his way through college.


Even then, “I loved teaching,” he said of leading the Burger team employees. “I love music and I love teaching, so I just put it together.”


He especially loves teaching at Kelloggsville, a very diverse district, because of the differences students bring to the band. In his music appreciation class, he encourages students to bring in music representative of their cultures, from Korean music called K-Pop to African music. They also bring in food, another one of Anderson’s favorite things, and the band banquet becomes a spread of international foods.


“I’ve had so many great kids,” he said. “That’s what I love about the district, even beyond the music. Like any band director, I try to foster a good family atmosphere. I try to pride myself on this being a safe zone.”


The impact of that at the middle school is immeasurable, Alston said. “Band students are some of the most positive, academic students in the building. The more students we have involved in music and the fine arts, the better our behavior decreases and our scores increase. So to have someone like Troy in our building, pushing our students and growing his program, the better we will be as a whole.”


With a consistent message and stellar music, Anderson gives students faith in their own abilities — and the courage to yell “Geronimo!”


“The only thing I do is give them the ball and say here you go. You’re a family,” he said. “Really they do it all on their own.”


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School News Network: With books and yarn, Godfrey Lee teacher Rebeca English is definitely a rockstar

Teacher Rebecca English teaches students to knit
Teacher Rebecca English teaches students to knit

By Erin Albanese

School News Network

There are books galore in Rebecca English’s high school classroom. New and old and of many genres, they are categorized and in bins along the walls, on shelves and in a closet-turned-library.


There are also bundles of yarn stacked in a container on the floor, wooly materials to be knit into hats and mittens. Several handmade scarves hang from hooks on the wall.


When it comes to connecting with students, English does so purl by purl and page by page. She invites them into her den-like classroom for endless supplies of books and knitting needles, which she said are great mediums to get students to relax, talk and develop a sense of belonging. Their effectiveness is evidenced by teenagers who pop into the classroom to visit her during lunch every day.


They take a seat to read, eat or just start a conversation.

“When you walk into my room, kids always say it’s like walking into a big hug,” said English, who has taught at Godwin Heights High School for 23 years. “I want it to be cozy and nurturing.”


Sophomore Cecilia Montejo said she started writing poetry after being inspired by English. “You can be comfortable here. It’s a warm place inside school.”


“She has this smile on her face and is always happy,” sophomore LLuvia Fuentes said of English. “It’s full of books. It’s like the library in here.”


Three days a week at noon, the classroom becomes Knitting Club, Writing Club or Book Club, all which English advises. Over half-finished scarves, prose or verse, lots of bonding takes place.


“We talk about different situations, laugh and solve all the world’s problems,” English said.

Reaching Out to ‘Invisible’ Students

Teacher Rebecca English has more than 3,000 books.
Teacher Rebecca English has more than 3,000 books.

English teaches special education English and social studies classes, and general education multicultural literature. A native of Grand Rapids, she grew up “with floor-to-ceiling bookcases” in her home. Her parents (her father was an Episcopal priest) stressed giving above everything else.


So as a teacher, English made it part of her job to do more than required. She jokes that a huge chunk of her paycheck goes toward books. Students call her an Amazon fanatic, and the staff at Schuler Books & Music know her by name.


She started the clubs — Knitting Club is in its third year, Book Club in its second, and Writing Club is new this year — to give students another way to be involved with school.


“I basically just saw a big need,” she said. “Our school offers sports, band, choir, art, but sometimes students fall through the cracks. Sometimes certain students do not feel a sense of belonging and feel disconnected from their own high school.”


English herself was once an “invisible student,” she admitted, so said she relates to those who tend to go unnoticed, those at the back of the class, not an athlete or academic superstar.


She also realized another need in Godwin Heights, a diverse district where more than 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch rates. “Some of our students come to school and this is their safe haven,” English said. “I think every kid wants to feel special in someone’s eyes, like someone’s caring for them.”


So her room is a sanctuary. During club sessions, students feel safe and free. “Goodbye social media for an hour. Goodbye fast-paced world. Goodbye chaos-filled minds,” English said.


English goes the extra mile in other ways. She brings groups of students to movies that are based on the books they read; she takes them shopping and to lunch. She hunts down the right book for the right student. Senior Zy Scott often spends her lunch hour in English’s classroom with a book in her hand. She didn’t even like reading much before she met English, who introduced her to “drama books,” she said.


Students in Knitting Club have ample material.
Students in Knitting Club have ample material.

“Now I read every day,” Zy said. “She knows what kind of books I like, and we talk about them.”


Principal Chad Conklin said English’s work makes a big difference at Godwin Heights.


“Rebecca has a fantastic heart and passion for our students, and she works hard to ensure all students have an opportunity to connect to a club to build a sense of school pride and self confidence,” he said.


English, who has two daughters, even made sure one teenager had a home. “I had a student who needed a foster placement a few years ago.


Davonte ended up living with English’s parents, and now, at age 20, recently moved out on his own, she said.


“I feel kind of like that’s what I was put on Earth to do, to give back,” she said.

Advocating for Students

She is also her students’ biggest champion. In her ninth- and tenth-grade special education English class, she asks Shakespeare trivia questions. Students rattle off answers on his birthdate, wife, family and theatre. They know a lot about the Bard.


“I’d put them against anyone in the school,” she said. “They are Shakespeare experts.”


English loves to see students accomplish their goals, to see them dare to try new things. When they succeed it impacts others, she insists. In Knitting Club, they learn to make beautiful, handmade gifts and to teach others how to knit.


“The look on student’s faces when they come into the Knitting Club glowing because they were able to make a homemade Christmas gift for their family, is priceless.”


Student Edwin Daniels, also a former non-reader, talks about how he’s already read five books this year because English stocked her shelves with a series he really likes.


But getting to know English is about more than books and knowing Shakespeare, he said.


“We share in here. We share whatever. We’re different shades,” he said, about the ethnically diverse class. “(That students are different) doesn’t matter.”


What matters is the way English makes students know they are always welcome by handing them spools of yarn, a favorite novel or a comfy place to talk.


“I cannot help but smile and feel the joy,” she said. “My students have found their place.”


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School News Network: Ring-toss or slime-making, it’s all about fun

Fifth-grader Sebastion Escalante gets his hands messy while Darryl Jackson watches.
Fifth-grader Sebastion Escalante gets his hands messy while Darryl Jackson watches.

By Erin Albanese

School News Network


After school on Mondays through Thursdays, more than 40 middle school students participate in TEAM 21, where they do homework, eat, play sports and participate in activities.


But a recent night was all about fun, complete with doughnuts and apple cider, slime-making and pumpkin ring-toss. Students participated in Lights On Afterschool, a national event that celebrates after-school programs.


TEAM 21 is run through a partnership between the City of Wyoming Parks and Recreation Department and Godfrey-Lee, Wyoming, Godwin Heights and Kelloggsville Public Schools. Fifteen schools offer programs for more than 2,000 students ranging from kindergarten to ninth grade.


Launched in October 2000, Lights On Afterschool promotes the role of after-school programs in keeping kids safe, inspiring them to learn and helping working families. The effort has become a hallmark of the after-school movement and annually sees more than 1 million Americans celebrate at more than 8,000 events nationwide.


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School News Network: Author to student writers ‘Do it because you love it’

MarcyKate Connolly shows Lee students her first list of edits that needed to be done for her novel “Monstrous” - See more at: http://www.schoolnewsnetwork.org/index.php/2016-17/author-student-writers-do-it-because-you-love-it/#sthash.9jll4iM8.dpuf
MarcyKate Connolly shows Lee students her first list of edits that needed to be done for her novel “Monstrous” – 

By Erin Albanese

School News Network


It can be a looooong way from when the first sentences are written to when a completed novel hits the shelves. Publishing is a journey often wrought with rejection and lots of revision, said MarcyKate Connolly, author of fantasy books for middle-grade and young adults.


“If there’s anything I want you to take with you today it’s that writing is rewriting,” Connolly told about 50 Lee Middle-High School students who attended the session because they have an interest in writing.


Connolly talked about the roadmap to publishing, which she learned by writing her books “Monstrous” and “Ravenous,” tales geared toward tweens that have been likened to Frankenstein and the Brothers Grimm.


Connolly, of Boston, made a stop at Lee while visiting Grand Rapids Comic-Con, the popular event where sci-fi, fantasy and comic book fans gather. She explained the quest of a writer, including spending many hours in her “writing cave,” the challenge of finding an agent to represent the book, the experience of rejection and the work that continues after a book is accepted for publishing.

And finally, the thrill of seeing the book at stores and in the hands of others.


MarcyKate Connolly signs a book for the Lee Middle-High School media center
MarcyKate Connolly signs a book for the Lee Middle-High School media center

A marketing professional by day, Connolly said her love for writing and storytelling kept her going despite more than 300 rejections from publishers. She wrote several books that were never published and received her first offer for publishing after four years of trying.


“Publishing is not something you get into thinking you are going to get rich quick or going to be a mega bestseller overnight,” she said. “You do it because you love it.”


Connolly had to re-assess her goals, at one point. “Why am I doing this to myself?” she recalled asking after getting rejection after rejection. So she continued writing for herself, making up the stories and characters she loved.


Kelly McGee, Godfrey-Lee district media specialist, said Connolly’s visit helped students think about writing as a career and the process of becoming an author. He said he hopes to start a student writer’s group. “I think we have a lot of writers here.”


He said he also wanted students to leave with the message that perseverance is required for accomplishing your dreams.


Connolly’s books were published through HarperCollins Publishers. Her next book, “Shadow Weaver,” is scheduled for release in winter 2018.


She encouraged students to find their “tribe” — other writers they can use for empathy, feedback and critique. And no matter how many failed attempts, she urged students to look at it as getting somewhere.


“Whatever words you write are not wasted,” she said.


Freshman Olivia Clark, who loves writing, said Connolly’s words resonated. “Don’t give up. You’ve got to be strong. There are harsh people out there.”


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