Many graduates dream of future careers far away from home at this time of year, but a group of former Godfrey-Lee Public Schools students are happy to be teaching right where they spent their school years.
Nearly 20 staff members have gone from being students behind the desks to teachers in front of the room at the school system of about 110 teachers.
“I had a great education here,” said Chris DeMaagd, a 1986 graduate who teaches eighth-grade English at Lee Middle and High School. “I was in this building K-through-12 and never went to any other school or building. The experience with the staff and community made me want to come back and give the same to today’s students.”
The close-knit, small community was the reason several teachers said they stayed or returned.
“I feel at home here,” said Andrea Donovan, a 1997 graduate and ninth-grade English teacher who started teaching at Lee right after graduating from Grand Valley State University.
“You knew everybody,” said Superintendent David Britten, recalling how locals would pack the gym for school and community events in the ’60s and ’70s because it was usually the biggest thing happening in town.
Physical education teacher Jared Stehouwer, a 1989 grad, found out about his first job at Lee, the middle school physical education post, at his wedding. He got the job, replacing the middle school teacher who had taught him. Later he went on to replace the physical education teacher who taught him in high school.
Britten attended Lee in the late 1960s and took the long route back. He spent 22 years in the Army and was a principal at Wayland Public Schools before returning. He served as Lee’s middle and high school principal before taking the superintendent’s position in 2008.
“I thought it’d be really cool to go back to your home where you grew up,” he said. “I think it gives you an advantage when serving a community.”
The biggest differences, according to a group of the former students who gathered for a quick reunion earlier this year, have been an increase in student diversity and numbers along with lots of building changes.
Hispanics account for nearly 77 percent of the student body, rising from about 42 percent over the last 10 years. The percentage of whites has declined from 42 percent in 2002-2003 to about 11 percent. The African-American student body accounts for about 9 percent of the students. Since 2002-03, student population has grown overall by nearly 400 students.
As for the building changes, the alumni said the pink tile floors are gone, carpet has taken over and stairwells have been closed. Students no longer attend just one building for their entire education, with the addition of the Godfrey-Lee Elementary and Early Childhood Center. And for those who could remember, the skating rink in the back of school is gone.
In the classroom, wood shop, typing, bookkeeping and cursive are no longer taught. “Spellcheck” and “password” entered the vocabulary. Hot lunch has a salad bar, and, in the halls, the smell of Aquanet hair spray that kept big hair big is gone, as are girls’ hairstyles with wings and spiral curls.
Admitting to a Little Mischief
Ironically, except for the superintendent, the returnees described themselves as good students who participated in sports and clubs and got good grades. Britten said he was a “somewhat good kid in school,” but kind of a lazy student and was known to skip a class or two.
Only one other teacher of those gathered, Chris DeMaagd, admitted to skipping while a student at Lee, and she didn’t do it very well. “I skipped once my senior year and went to lunch at Mr. Fables on 28th Street with a friend and ran into the principal at the restaurant,” she said. Oops.
The graduates said they’ve seen Rebel pride grow over the years.
“There seems to be a stronger sense of camaraderie and school pride,” said Daniel Townsend, director of technology and a 2008 grad. He worked as an office aide his senior year and got a job in the high school media center after graduation.
“Teachers here want to see students excel in life. They connect with students on a personal level.”