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‘We’re on the Right Track’

Schools Taken Off Ailing Schools List, Rewarded for Gains

When Principal Tricia Mathes announced to her staff that their school had been taken off the state’s list of Priority Schools, they cheered and clapped their hands. The news meant Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Academy is no longer being monitored by the state, and potentially at risk for closure, for being in the bottom 5 percent of state schools.

“A few people had tears in their eyes,” Mathes said, shortly after the announcement on Friday by the Michigan School Reform Office. “They were so excited and so proud of the accomplishments the school, students and community have made.”

Academic Progress Rewarded

GRPS schools removed from the list of low-achieving Priority Schools:
Aberdeen School, Campus Elementary, Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Academy, Mulick Park Elementary, Ottawa Hills High School and Union High School

GRPS schools named as Reward Schools for high achievement*:
Blandford School, City High/Middle, Congress Elementary and Shawmut Hills

*Top 5 percent in Top-to-Bottom rankings, top 5 percent making greatest gains or beating the odds by outperforming predictions or similar schools

The MLK Leadership Academy was one of six Grand Rapids Public Schools that were taken off the Priority List — nearly half of the 13 that had been on it. They were among 79 schools statewide taken off the list after making strong improvements, including Godwin Heights High School and East Kentwood High School. Another 38 — none in the Kent ISD — face the possibility of closure or other state interventions.

Further, of the seven GRPS schools still on the Priority List, none will require corrective action because they improved their ranking, district officials say. What’s more, two schools, Shawmut Hills and Congress Elementary, were added to the Reward Schools list for making dramatic gains in academic achievement on the state’s Top-to-Bottom list.

“It’s great validation for the hard work we’ve been doing for the last couple of years,” said Shawmut Hills Principal Sara Melton, whose school jumped from the 15th to 72nd percentile achievement ranking.

Improvements Yield Gains

Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal called the announcement “further evidence of the growing momentum and success of the GRPS Transformation Plan,” a comprehensive strategy launched in 2013 to stabilize and improve city schools. Neal has also credited the plan for increasing district enrollment last fall for the first time in two decades.

The Grand Rapids schools were among those identified as low-performing between 2010 and 2014, and subsequently monitored by the state for turnaround. They were released for having met three criteria for improvement after crafting redesign plans.

At MLK Academy, a preK-8 school that was placed on the list in 2013, the improvement plan included more professional development for teachers, and a reading program featuring two hours of uninterrupted English instruction with guided reading and small-group work, Mathes said. That model was also transferred to math instruction.

Principal Sara Melton tells her Reward School students, “We’re not afraid of hard work at Shawmut Hills”

“It just says we’re on the right track and we can continue what we’ve been doing for more growth and deeper learning,” Mathes said. “It gives us a little bit of a breathing-room feeling.”

At ShawmutHills, a K-8 school, Melton attributed students’ dramatic growth to innovations such as “Book Bag Adventures,” where volunteers choose books for students to read at home each night. Teachers also emphasized a “growth mindset” for students, in which pupils identify goals and choose homework methods based on what works best for them.

“It’s not about making work easier,” Melton added. “It’s about digging in and working hard at improving themselves.”

Sharing the good news with her students Monday morning, Melton reminded them that “practice makes progress.” She also raised the bar by challenging them to identify a new learning goal with their teachers, saying those who reach it will have a banquet after Spring Break.

“We’ve got to reach even higher,” she said. “You have done a great job, but we are not going to let up.”


List of 79 Schools Released from State Priority List

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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