Kentwood ? When Discovery Elementary opened its doors in 2006, Principal Debra McNally envisioned a safe, accepting environment where staff and students felt encouraged to educate and learn.
As she prepared for her retirement in 2020, McNally witnessed the fruits of her labor when Discovery became nationally recognized as an Exemplary High Performing National Blue Ribbon school.
“I’m so proud of the culture at Discovery and in Kentwood,” McNally said. “This whole process was a labor of love.”
The U.S. Department of Education’s National Blue Ribbon Schools Program recognizes public and private elementary, middle and high schools based on their overall academic excellence and progress in closing achievement gaps among students.
McNally initially received word of the nomination right before schools closed due to the pandemic in March. An extensive application process followed for McNally and her committee of four other teachers to write about their school’s culture and academics.
“The application process took hours and hours to complete,” McNally said. “One of the benefits of being home during quarantine was more time to really dig into writing about the culture and leadership of our school.”
Unfortunately, quarantine also made it difficult to include student input while drafting the application.Thanks to Google Docs and Zoom calls, the committee collaborated to overcome unexpected hurdles and keep their momentum going. In addition to the written portion of the application, first-grade teacher Jean Rock said it required samples of curriculum and examples of lesson plans for different core subjects.
“Our application committee summarized how Discovery’s academic support systems, including special education, set us apart from other schools,” Rock said.
Serving as McNally’s assistant during the process, Rock described her retired principal as the driving force behind receiving the award.
“It was really neat to see the inner workings of our school I don’t always see,” Rock said. “I gained the perspective of all Deb has accomplished since the school’s inception and she knew so much about the school, staff and students.”
Blue Ribbon awards affirm the hard work of students and educators in creating learning environments that challenge and engage. McNally did not have a problem discussing Discovery in the application because she believed her school exemplified the elements of an exceptional school.
“When we talked about our culture, it’s all about relationship capacity,” McNally said. “In Kentwood, we are so proud of our diversity, rigor and relationships. We don’t walk away from adversity, we acknowledge it and rise up to meet it.”
Second-grade teacher Pamela Bird compiled student achievement data for the Blue Ribbon application and echoed diversity and academic success to be Discovery’s greatest strengths contributing to the school’s culture.
According to Bird, teachers help their students set two kinds of goals, typical and stretch, as a part of iReady, a comprehensive teaching and assessment program. Each month, Bird meets with teachers to discuss their student data and brainstorm ways to support their students through engaging lesson plans.
“Having students set goals is a great opportunity to empower our students to take ownership of their learning, promote a growth mindset, and improve their academic achievement,” Bird said.
The committee was able to pull iReady data to exemplify their school’s academic achievement. Their two-year longitudinal study, found that kindergarteners from 2016-17, measured as second graders in 2018-19, increased their phonemic awareness by 68%, whereas students in the comparison school increased theirs by 54%.
In 2018-2019, 78% of Discovery fifth graders scored advanced or proficient on their M-STEP English, compared to 46% of fifth graders statewide, according to MI School Data.
Discovery focuses on academic achievement, but additionally emphasizes inclusivity and opportunities for students of all backgrounds.
“Over 90 languages are spoken by students and families in Kentwood and our students still perform exceptionally well,” Bird said. “Our Hispanic and African American population struggles, but we continue to work on that through data collection, review and make a plan based on our students’ needs.”
Bird also attributes Discovery’s strengths to its “well-oiled machine” staff.
“I’ve worked in Kentwood for 31 years and our teachers learn to meet the strengths and weaknesses of each student,” Bird said. “Achieving this award really shows how great our teachers are and how everyone has a stake in the work we’re doing.”
Director of Elementary Education and Federal Programs Michael Pickard explained how Kentwood strives to set up its schools and students for success.
“Kentwood has multiple levels of support for staff and students to facilitate learning and how we effectively assess students learning our curriculums. Put those together and it sets us up for success,” Pickard said.
With over 80 years of combined teaching experience between them, McNally and her team of Discovery educators uphold a shared commitment to student success and empowering each other from the top down.
“It’s not nirvana, but we are all invested in this together,” McNally said.