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Turning Around a Low-Performing School

Arelis Diaz realized at a young age that it’s possible for a teacher to impact the life of a vulnerable student forever.

In third grade, the daughter of Dominican immigrants struggled to learn her multiplication tables. Her teacher tracked students’ progress on a chart on the bulletin board with paper rockets. The more the student learned, the higher the rocket rose, but Diaz’s hovered low.

Her parents spoke no English and felt lost in the U.S. education system. But that didn’t stop her teacher from reaching out to them. One day after school, she invited Diaz’s mother inside to show her the rocket ship and bulletin board. With patience and hand motions, she taught her to help Diaz at home with flash cards.

“She involved my mom in a very different way,” Diaz said. “She showed her how to do it, what to do, and the impact it would make. That stayed with me forever.”

That connection would leave such a mark on Diaz that, years later, it played a role in helping transform North Godwin Elementary School’s performance from dismal to on par with some of the state’s most affluent schools. She knew parents like her own would become involved in their children’s education if given knowledge, but it would take a multi-pronged effort. Every staff member had to believe students could achieve at much higher levels.

Diaz served as North Godwin’s principal from 2000 to 2005 following five years as an English-language learner (ELL) teacher at the school. After her tenure as principal, she served as Godwin Heights assistant superintendent in charge of curriculum, instruction and human resources for five years. She is now program officer for education and learning for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek.

Above and beyond her titles, Diaz calls herself a “justice warrior.” Her work changed education for low-income students in North Godwin Elementary School, but it required hard work and the willingness to go to battle, she said.

“There’s a war, and the war is all about the injustice in our educational system — the gap in learning between the haves and have-nots,” Diaz said. “It is the greatest social injustice of our time, and most leaders don’t have the intestinal fortitude to go forward and do what they need to do to change that.

“My mantra became ‘We will do whatever it takes’ to effectively educate all of our students,” she added.

Arelis Diaz

Getting Parents Involved

Today, the school, where staff includes several teachers who worked under Diaz, continues to excel despite having 92 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch.

To create change, Diaz began intensely scrutinizing data on student performance and using it to modify teaching practices, build on what was working and discard what wasn’t. She demanded accountability among her staff, and presented teachers with information and resources to dispel stereotypes and instill the mindset that all students can learn at high levels.

Because of her background, Diaz understood immigrant families. If a school makes consistent efforts to welcome and involve them, it makes a huge difference, she said. North Godwin teachers made that push at a time when Godwin’s ELL population was rapidly increasing. In 1995, Diaz had 36 students in her ELL class. Fifteen years later, North had 155 ELL students who came from 16 different countries. Creating support among those parents was critical.

“All (immigrant parents) need is information and they will soak it up like a little child,” she said. “Involving them can really change a child’s life.”

As an ELL teacher, Diaz started a program in 1998 called Parents Are Teachers. Still used today, it helps teach non-native English-speaking parents learn to read English and become early literacy teachers to their children. Parents receive supplies to support reading activities at home.

By the Numbers

Accolades Pile Up at School that 
Surpasses Expectations

North Godwin has been named a “Beating the Odds” Reward school for the past five years, recognized by the State of Michigan for overcoming traditional barriers to student achievement and outperforming schools with similar risk factors and demographic makeup.

The Education Trust-Midwest,  a statewide education policy and advocacy organization, awarded the school with a “Dispelling the Myth Award” in 2009.

Also, the regional Reading Now Network, made up of 100 Michigan superintendents, has tapped into North Godwin as a source for best practices to implement in other schools to boost reading achievement statewide.


Dispelling the Myth

Reading Now Network

Beating the Odds

Diaz realized a lot of information could be gleaned from data, and teachers needed methods and materials that responded to it. She spent hours studying the numbers, and gave her teachers time to learn how to use the data and relate it to their teaching. The use of data to create curriculum has become standard, but North Godwin was one of the first schools to do it.

“I knew that facing our brutal facts meant looking at who was learning, what they were learning, when they were learning it, how we were (using data in teaching), and most importantly, why some students were not learning,” Diaz said.

Numbers revealed that the reading program needed a revamp, she said. The district had focused on academic coaching for the lowest readers but it wasn’t reaching enough students: “We were realizing we were serving less than 10 percent of the population, but 60 to 70 percent needed that type of support.”

Diaz zeroed in on what was working. Teachers Pat Brower and Deb Born had earlier started the parent-friendly Backpack Readers program for kindergarten to second-graders in their classrooms. Every child received a paper book to read with teachers each day at school. They brought the same book home in Ziploc bags to read with parents, who signed the books. Simple instructions were included on how to read with a child effectively: point to words, reading the title and ask questions about the story.

Diaz expanded the program to all K-2 students. The result?

“Every single child got read to every day,” she said. “The Backpack Reader program produced amazing results and increased reading growth such that every first-grader was reading at grade level by the end of the year, including ELL and special-education students.”

Breaking Down Long-Held Beliefs

Another issue had to be addressed for the school to make major gains, she said: “changing the hearts and the mindset of teachers.” Diaz started professional development sessions on changing perceptions of children in poverty and began to gauge what teachers thought was possible. They studied the work of educators who have had successes in low-income schools with large minority populations.

Teachers felt overwhelmed by immigrant students who had settled in the area from war-torn countries. Diaz shared heart-wrenching stories about families she had interviewed for a master’s degree project who lived in a low-income Wyoming apartment complex.

“It opened (teachers’) hearts and changed their minds,” Diaz said. “They were getting to understand the human side of a child in a family.”

Another focus was  school beautification. They added murals, gardens, a butterfly garden. Student teachers were asked to “leave a legacy” and many contributed to the school grounds. The effort spread into the neighborhood, with residents sprucing up as well.

“There’s a war, and the war is all about the injustice in oureducational system — the gap in learning between the haves and have-nots.”
— Arelis Diaz

Diaz also overhauled the discipline program. In-recess detention had been “a joke” for students, who talked and laughed with other penalized students. She moved detention to the library, where supervising teachers questioned students on everything from why they made a bad choice to what they wanted to do with their lives.

She met with teachers who had a high number of discipline incidents in their classrooms, addressing the problem and bringing in support. “If you can’t manage a classroom, there is no learning going on,” she said.

To be an effective leader, Diaz said she had to have an effective staff, but an average of just one teacher per grade level was performing at the level the students needed. Not everyone was on board with her mission. “You have to be able to say, ‘What you’re doing is not good enough,’ ” she said.

As assistant superintendent, Diaz went on to implement her strategies at a district-wide level, many of which continue to impact student achievement.

Current administrators said Diaz served the district well. “Ms. Diaz was a talented and visionary leader who led a staff that had similar attributes and shared a common efficacy,” Godwin Heights Superintendent William Fetterhoff said.  

“Arelis’ work helped to create a true sense of collaboration among the staff at North Godwin that continues to date,” said current Principal Mary Lang. “To be a successful educator in an urban, diverse district, it is essential to have high expectations and a strong belief that all children can learn. These beliefs are the foundation of Godwin Heights Public schools.”


Related Story: The Road to Success in a High-Poverty School: It’s All About Collaboration, Expectations

The Burden of Poverty: a Backpack of Heartache

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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