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Reversing Academic Decline: How One School Did It

Teachers Work Together to Improve State Ranking


Math teacher Lindsey Gallas shows how perpendicular lines look
Math teacher Lindsey Gallas shows how perpendicular lines look

East Kentwood High School teachers have always known that wonderful things go on inside their school. Theirs is the most diverse in the state, where students from more than 60 countries walk the hallways and 24 percent of students are English-language learners.

So when their school was named a priority school –– identified for improvement due to low achievement –– by the Michigan Department of Education in 2012, they were shocked.

But after the initial disbelief, teachers and administrators got to work, said math teacher Luke Wilcox. “We said, “Let’s take a look at what we are doing and see how we can improve.”

East Kentwood Creates Network of Teacher Leaders

East Kentwood High School teachers are growing together to continue their momentum of improvement with a group called Rising Teacher Leaders.

While hiring the best teachers available –– including 12 this school year –– has been a priority in school improvement, math teacher Luke Wilcox said. Another has been providing consistent and ample support from the moment a teacher walks through the door for the first time.

Wilcox and English teacher Mike Traywick created the Rising Teacher group at the beginning of last school year, with nine teachers in their first three years of teaching in Kentwood Public Schools. A second cohort of 13 was added this year, with plans for adding a new group every year until everyone in the building receives support.

The entire group meets regularly as a social support system and for professional development focused on helping teachers in their first few years of teaching. Topics are anything teachers want to discuss, questions they have or things they want to brainstorm.

“We wanted to do something that helped improve the overall atmosphere of the school, and help teachers be more successful and the kids be more successful,” Traywick said. “It helps to get everyone connected to an overall vision.

“We want each kid to beat the odds,” he added. “Whatever the expectation of them that other people might have, we want them to beat that expectation and reach their greatest potential.”

First-year teacher Khadijah Staaf said she’d be lost without the group. “It’s amazing. We come together and talk about things that go on in my classroom every day. These are people I feel comfortable going to.”

“East Kentwood is a very unique school, so it was really helpful for the group to give me the lay of the land,” said Lindsey Galas, who’s in her third year teaching there.

The priority school status was based on standardized test scores, graduation rates and the achievement gap among its students. Those ratings landed East Kentwood at the4th percentile mark, meaning 19 out of 20 schools in Michigan were deemed better.

This year however, the school has leapt to the 49th percentile. That’s a result of work over four years, educators said, including empowering teachers to collaborate, learn from and teach each other.

“The staff was right on board: What do we need? How can we fix this? How do we let people know how great our school is because people don’t see the whole story and our kids are more than test scores?” said Assistant Principal Jamie Gordon. But having said that, she added, staff also asked, “What can we do to make sure our kids have the opportunity to be as successful as possible?’

“It was really a rallying of the staff and it wouldn’t have happened if we wouldn’t have all come together like we did,” Gordon said.

Teachers Teach Each Other

Staff focused on instruction to build consistency across subjects. Teachers, including Wilcox, were designated as teacher-leaders, with time set aside each day for coaching other teachers. Wilcox helped plan the EKConference, a day of professional development with teachers modeling instruction in their area of expertise in dozens of sessions, created by Tracey Kooy.

A more focused approach with professional development meant more hands-on involvement from staff, and more topics teachers were most interested in.

Staff members also credit improvement to growing together in a cohesive way. “There’s this shared leadership and ownership about the vision and direction the school is headed in,” Wilcox said.

Gordon said they are using data, from test scores and other sources, more effectively to better meet the needs of students. They’ve removed ineffective policies, such as an attendance rule that resulted in a student failing after a certain number of absences, regardless of his or her grade.

The staff also embraced voluntary learning labs, during which teachers observe each other in classrooms to give input and learn from each other in a non-threatening way. The labs are cross-curricular and focused on instruction rather than content.

The school continues to develop leaders throughout the school. “Our role is to empower as many teachers as we can,” Gordon said.

Gap Reflects Student Diversity

It should be noted that the achievement gap component was removed for the 2016 calculation. The goal has been increasing achievement for all students, even if a gap still exists, Gordon said.

“Of course we have kids brand new to the country and kids going to Ivy League Schools, (so) we are going to have an achievement gap,” Wilcox said.

“We will celebrate that gap because of the nature of who we are,” added Assistant Principal Rich Friberg. “We aren’t going to dummy down stuff to make that gap close.”

English teacher Mike Traywick talks sci-fi in a class based on science fiction
English teacher Mike Traywick talks sci-fi in a class based on science fiction

East Kentwood has also doubled the number of students taking Advanced Placement classes since the 2012 designation. That’s the result of an intentional effort. Gordon noted that Wilcox has achieved 98 percent of students passing the AP exam in his statistics class.

“We want everyone to push and challenge themselves,” Gordon said.

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SNN Article on EKConference

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. 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 or email Erin.

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