Each summer, James Vanden Heuvel visits youth camps in Kent and Mason counties. As a consultant for the state of Michigan, he makes sure the camps are meeting licensing standards and investigates complaints of abuse and neglect. But he also sees young people happily learning how to pitch tents, work together and develop socially.
It’s not a bad vision for how schools should operate, says Vanden Heuvel, the newly named Education Specialist for the district.
|Meet James Vanden Heuvel
Position: Education Specialist, Northview Public Schools
Prior position: Counselor, Highlands Middle School, 2002-2017
Education: Western Michigan University, master’s degrees in social work, school counseling and educational leadership; Calvin College, bachelor’s in outdoor recreation
Family: wife Krista, daughters at Northview High and Crossroads Middle
“The camp setting is a wonderful community,” says Vanden Heuvel, who was an outdoor recreation director at Camp Roger in college. “When I look at a school, I think of it as a camp, and how a community is established.”
From taking care of their cabins and tying knots to respecting one another, campers are “active learners,” just as students should be, he adds: “We’re looking for all the same things the camp community has figured out how to do.”
Vanden Heuvel brings broad experiences to his newly created position, including mental-health therapist, youth pastor and emergency medical technician. They will all come into play as he helps lead a crucial piece of the district’s new Strategic Plan: development of the whole child.
A longtime counselor at Highlands Middle School, Vanden Heuvel co-chairs that leg of the plan with Dan Heitzman, principal of West Oakview Elementary and director of special services for secondary schools.
Meeting Needs for Learning
The plan encompasses two other major initiatives, all emerging from a series of meetings and surveys beginning in the spring of 2016 and approved by the school board that fall:
- Integration and alignment of district programs, aimed at ensuring consistent practices, smooth student transitions between schools and similar learning levels among schools;
- Promoting the story of Northview schools, boosting staff morale and cultivating community partnerships.
Vanden Heuvel’s position as Education Specialist for the district, from kindergarten through 12th grade, will coordinate services for several key areas of student need, says Superintendent Scott Korpak. They include nursing services, counseling, mental health, homelessness, truancy and special medical conditions, all geared toward the district’s mission of inspiring students to achieve their individual best.
“It’s all about trying to get these students and families the support they need to be successful,” Korpak says. Vanden Heuvel was “the perfect match” to head that effort, Korpak adds, given his professional credentials and that “Mr. Van” is “well known and universally admired” in the Northview school community.
Vanden Heuvel speaks with passion about providing those supports, and removing barriers to student learning that may be rooted in personal and family problems.
“We realize their learning is dependent on basic needs being met,” Vanden Heuvel says in his narrow office at the high school. “There’s this soil that needs to be tilled, to provide these basic needs for families.”
He pulls out a drawer full of some of those needs, including toothbrushes and toothpaste for any student who needs them. That’s fine for a quick fix, he says, but students need regular care from a dentist to avoid tooth problems that could affect their learning.
From EMT to Student Counselor
Likewise, adequate nutrition, good physical and mental health, and supportive home lives are important to students’ thriving, says Vanden Heuvel. Key to his job is coordinating the services of school counselors, social workers and nurses from Spectrum Health to best meet students’ varied challenges. They may refer students who need special attention. He may also visit families’ homes, as when he recently met with a parent and child with health issues to develop a plan for school attendance.
‘Whole child is saying where is that child’s individual best, and then helping them get to that point’ – James Vanden Heuvel, education specialist
He also hopes to build more support networks in the community to help provide both preventive services and quick intervention. His overarching goal, he says: to cultivate systemic solutions, not short-term fixes, to persistent problems.
“If we get at some root barriers to these family issues, then we should see their learning improve, because we’re taking care of the root problem.”
All solutions point toward development of the healthy “whole child”: physical, social, emotional and cognitive. Vanden Heuvel boils the mission down to helping students close the gap between where they are and their unrealized potential. That “needs gap” varies from child to child, whether it’s an Advanced Placement student or one struggling to get decent grades.
“Whole child is saying where is that child’s individual best, and helping that child and family understand that individual best, and then helping them get to that point,” he says. “We can’t do that alone. We need this community, and we need all these resources to help.”
He’s well versed in community resources, having spent five years as a youth pastor in Grand Haven and 15 years as an EMT in Rockford and Spring Lake, responding to gunshot victims and drug overdoses, pulling people from burning houses and performing CPR. He himself survived a harrowing ambulance crash.
His life-saving work informs his approach to saving students, academically if not literally.
“We’re not going to let any child die, metaphorically,” he says firmly. “We’re going to promote learning for everyone, wherever they’re at. But our system needs to be in place so we can do that.”