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Hayley Lee: Student ‘On Fire’


Well, before, Hayley Lee was, by her own admission, a little sassy, too disrespectful, and variously disconnected — unless you include some unsavory elements that were leading her down un-righteous paths.

And today?

Well, you got a minute?

Hayley Lee has discovered something of dynamic importance: The power of a purpose-driven life. And it’s all she can do to contain her enthusiasm for each new day, which brings challenges to the skills she continues to hone as student, daughter, leader, friend.

“A bad attitude,” she says, nodding to a period that ran midway through her freshman year. “And little respect for my teachers.

Criminal Justice instructor Kelly Bowers shows Hayley handcuffing tips

“I thought everything was about me.”

Her epiphany?

A high school with which you might not be familiar – Kent Innovation High (KIH), locatedin a wing of the Kent Career Technical Center at 1655 East Beltline Ave. NE. KIH doesn’t dress a football team or capture headlines in traditional ways. But it’s perfectly content with quietly molding character by immersing its students in project-based learning, something that Hayley discovered was a fine fit to help her learn and mature.

“When I came to this building,” she says, “I realized all these successful people around me – the teachers – were trying to build us up. I realized that they weren’t trying to be mean to us; they were trying to help us. And that’s when everything changed.

“I didn’t need to fit into the crowd anymore. I had goals I wanted to reach.”

That’s not to say that Hayley doesn’t appreciate Wyoming High, the “home school” from which she’ll technically graduate next spring.

But KIH served up high school in ways that arguably connect students to disciplines in a more visceral fashion, using labs and other hands-on methods to dissect and discern the nuances of learning.

It’s there that Hayley has found her calling, and in more ways than one. As a Tech Center student, she’s enrolled in the Criminal Justice program there, and as part of that experience, interning this year for the 63rd District Court just down the road.

Since enrolling at KIH as a freshman, Hayley has, in a word, soared.

Alane Rozelle, who specializes in teaching English Language Learners at KCTC and advises Hayley on her role with a statewide student leadership council, says that “She’s organized, she’s having fun taking the reins, and she’s everywhere – involved in just so many different activities.”

If there’s a drawback, says Rozelle, it’s that Hayley has a difficult time saying “no.”

“That’s one of the points I’m trying to touch on, to help her delegate, to slow down. She’s up early, goes all day, and then most nights. I ask her sometimes how much sleep she gets and she says “Oh, a couple of hours.'”

I had goals I wanted to reach.
I had goals I wanted to reach.

A typical day for Hayley?

You might want to sit down.

It begins around 4 a.m., when she rises to meet the pre-dawn, which after breakfast means riding with her stepfather from their home in Coopersville to the Meijer store in Standale, where she then catches a bus to KIH.

During and after a day of classes, she’ll throw herself into any one or more of the initiatives that keep her busy until the wee hours.

That might include her job at a local pizzeria. Or work she performs with the youth group at her church. Or as an algebra tutor. Or on service projects for veterans and refugees. Or her role as a member of the National Honor Society. Or the student council. Or a special leadership team to which she was appointed. Or “SkillsUSA,” an elite group of high school students from all over the nation who explore strategies to make both themselves and those around them showcase and grow their leadership chops.

That latter group has especially impressed Hayley, who climbed aboard as a local rep, and was astonished at a conference in Lansing, where she saw peers who’d been elected to state-level positions.

“I saw that and thought, ‘That’s just so cool.’ I watched how they carried themselves, and how their leadership just flowed out. I was so inspired, I decided to run for state officer.”

The process was daunting, requiring that she give speeches, submit to interviews, and create a three-dimensional project to serve as a vote-getter.

Hayley is interning this year for the 63rd District Court

Today, thanks to her status as a Tech Center student, she’s president of the Michigan chapter of SkillsUSA, a post to which she was elected, which is to say she impressed the heck out of other members from all across the state.

Hayley’s turnaround has impressed more than her peers; it’s attracted the attention of educators in her life. As a sophomore, she was invited to present remarks at a breakfast attended by KISD staff.

She’ll take to the stage at least once more this school year in November, when she stands beside other trailblazing women like Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal, to accept a YWCA Tribute Award, as well as the Judy Lloyd Scholarship.

She’ll likely stride across other stages in the future, which could include receiving a college degree, possibly in supply chain management. After that, a law degree might beckon. As far as school choices, she’s still exploring options.

It was Alane Rozelle who nominated Hayley for the Tribute Award, and who’ll accompany her to next month’s luncheon.

“She’s just been glowing lately,” says Hayley’s mentor. “She’s got a lot of ideas. She’s definitely on fire.”

Hayley and her peers in formation

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Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher was long-time reporter and columnist for The Grand Rapids Press, where he specialized in wringing the extraordinary from the seeming ordinary. Read Tom's full bio or email Tom.


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