Thornapple Kellogg Schools — all 125 square miles of this rural district — is feeling happy, hopeful and mostly healthy, says Superintendent Tom Enslen. With 21 new teachers, many graduating from college just months ago, Thornapple-Kellogg is bucking the national trend with a wave of fresh-faced and enthusiastic teachers.
Dispersed throughout each school building, the smartly turned-out recruits unleash new energy and loads of imagination that are infectious for the whole district.
“We’re in an extraordinary spot right now and nobody is happier than me,” Enslen said.
At Thornapple Kellogg Middle School, students marveled at baby-faced Chris Cole, the new math and science teacher who looks more like their bro than the educator. Graduating from Central Michigan University with a teaching degree in 2015, Cole left the Lansing School District for the warmth and welcome he received at Thornapple Kellogg.
“Everyone at TK is so genuinely excited to be here,” Cole said. “I want to be part of something this good.”
With enthusiasm powering her crystal-clear singing voice, Katrina Deters, music and choir teacher at Lee and Page Elementary Schools, welcomes each student heartily in the hallway at Lee.
“Welcome to music,” said Deters, a 2015 graduate of Hope College. “Happy Monday, come on in. Welcome, welcome. Glad that you joined us today. So ready. Yes.”
Before she introduces the ukulele, the instrument of the day, and teaches a new drum pattern on their bucket drums, she wants to hear about any top fun that the second-graders had on the weekend.
“We’re going to sing the ‘Hello Song. Listen to me sing it and then I want you to echo it back to me,” Deters says, then sings it for them: “Hi, there. How are you? It’s nice to see you. Hi, there. How are you? On this happy day.”
Schools a Draw for Newcomers
For a variety of reasons, including retirements, internal shifting and a few resignations, coupled with a growing student population, Thornapple Kellogg finds itself hiring 21 teachers and 13 other staff. That’s a big deal, considering Michigan was the only state in the nation to lose population overall between 2000-2010, according to U.S. Census figures. During that time public school enrollment shrink eight percent.
“In the last five years, the number of students majoring in education in local universities and colleges has dwindled. Their numbers are down by half,” Enslen said. “That downward trend will continue and that might start to define the state of things.”
Fortunately, he said, “We were in such good shape last spring that we were able to get a jump on the hiring process,” rather than wait until the eleventh hour.
At the back-to-school teacher rally with the Trojans band drumming up TK spirit, Enslen recognized the critical role that his teachers play, day in and day out.
“In this day and age in public education, many, many school districts are experiencing declining enrollments,” Enslen said. “Birth rates are lower than they have been since the Fifties, and enrollment in public schools is at its lowest point since the Fifties. But we’re here together demonstrating what a very healthy school district looks like.
“You see the housing starts in the community,” he added. “They want to be here because of you, make no mistake about it. People move into communities based on the health of the local school district. And they love this place.”
At a time when media stories often tell of teachers and staff worn down by heavy workloads, sagging wages and distracted students, it’s heartening to see these investments inhuman capital at Thornapple Kellogg, said Brian Balding, middle school principal.
“Despite what you might read in the news and all those things, teaching is a very good profession to go into and the people that I hire say that it’s a calling,” Balding said. “That’s what I look for when I hire someone.”
For Jacob Bultema, there’s proof that you can go home again. Bultema, a newly hired kindergarten teacher, works in the same McFall Elementary School classroom where he attended kindergarten as a child.
Bultema graduated from Thornapple Kellogg High School in 2011 and earned his teaching degree from Siena Heights University in Adrian, before landing his first kindergarten teaching position in the Tampa Bay area.
“My goal for the kindergarteners is to make sure that they want to be here, that they develop a positive outlook on school,” Bultema said. “So when they get to the upper grades and the subjects become more rigorous they still remember it’s fun to learn.”
Jon Washburn, McFall Elementary School principal, stopped by to check on Bultema, who “was one of my favorite students when I was a principal at the middle school,” Washburn said.
At McFall Elementary, which houses Young 5’s through first grade, Washburn added two new classes, requiring new teachers. “We see the population trends first,” Washburn said. “And we like what we see –- though we’re almost out of space.”
Investing in Teachers
After a semester-long study abroad in Madrid, Spain while at Cornerstone University, Melissa Doran returned home still wanting to experience more Spanish culture. After graduating and marrying, she went back to Spain and taught English. She’s now accepted the high school Spanish teacher post in the district where she did her student teaching.
“I hope to instill in my students a love for the Spanish language and culture,” said “Senora Doran” as the students call her. “I want my students to experience that so I will pass on my energy and enthusiasm.”
Doran teaches 90 percent of her classes in Spanish. Monday morning, she hopped on a chair, asked the students to stand and began playing “Simon Says” in Spanish — a fun way to ascertain the students’ knowledge of the language.
Sarah Hammer started the school year as the new full-time special education director, coming by way of Byron Center Public Schools where she worked for 13 years.
“I am really excited about this opportunity because I am from this community. My kids go here, my husband teaches here so I feel like I am coming home,” Hammer said. “I want to be visible so the kids and parents know who I am – I am a voice for them.”
Middle school Principal Balding perhaps summed it up best: “I’ve been here 10 years and I don’t know if we have hired 10 people in that timeframe. Seriously, we’re optimistic — we’re in a great place.”