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These two champions for students ‘feel the love’

Meet Your Administrators: Courtney MacDonald and Shelly Alvarez

Cedar SpringsCourtney MacDonald and Shelly Alvarez are the new middle-level (grades 6-8) assistant principals for Cedar Springs Public Schools, with Alvarez at the Middle School and MacDonald at Red Hawk Intermediate. SNN gets to know them in this edition of Meet Your Administrators.

Courtney MacDonald

Career experience: Before coming to Cedar Springs, MacDonald worked in several positions that combined social work and education. 

She began her career as a teacher at AmeriCorps and was placed with Goodwill Industries in Grand Rapids, where she taught job-readiness and interview skills classes for people experiencing homelessness. She then worked as a house manager for D.A. Blodgett – St. John’s, where she opened a middle school girls’ home (with now-Grand-Rapids-mayor Rosalynn Bliss) to serve girls who were wards of the state or who needed more help than foster care could provide. 

MacDonald later worked at Wedgwood and Hope Academy as a teacher serving students whose needs are not being met in traditional public schools. Her first real teaching job was as a long-term sub in a lockdown unit for middle school boys; she then spent three years leading a sixth-grade alternative classroom. 

For the past three years, MacDonald taught sixth grade at Red Hawk Intermediate. 

“Coming here, I think I’m more acutely sensitive and aware of our struggling population here – I do think there’s a large part of our Cedar population that has needs that sometimes go under the radar,” she said of the transition from alternative to traditional public education. “That’s something I was able to find here that makes my work meaningful, on top of everything you do in the classroom. I’ve always gravitated toward youth that face a lot of challenges … I am still able to build a lot of good relationships, even though it has felt very different. I’m really excited to be in this role and help advocate for our kids here.” 

Education/degrees: 

  • Bachelor’s degree, elementary education, Ferris State University
  • Master’s degree, educational leadership with emphasis on rural districts, Central Michigan University
MacDonald’s seventh-grade school photo (courtesy)

What would you like to share about your family? MacDonald and her husband, Matt, have three children: sons Noah, 11, and Rowan, 4; and daughter Phelan, 2.

“I love being a mom and I feel like my family is my safe-slash-happy place. My family is really where I get my strength and happiness from, I think.”

Hobbies/talents: “I am a diehard antique shopping fan. I can go from, like, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at an antique store and just dig through everything. I think old things are fascinating. I always think about the fact that our things will be at an antique store someday, and how weird is that? … I can make a good cup of coffee; that’s a good talent. My husband says he shakes after I make the coffee. That’s what I consider to be a good cup.” 

What kind of kid were you at the age of students at your new school? “I was shy and unsure of who I was going to be. I felt like I was trying to figure everything out, even what I liked or disliked. And it was a very awkward time of life – as I’m sure most people would describe sixth grade.” 

What’s the biggest lesson you have learned from students? “To include their voice in all decisions, because kids will tell you honestly what they think. They have really good ideas and observations because they’re living it. … Open, vulnerable communication and being reflective in giving feedback has always been really powerful for me as a teacher, because I’ve learned so much by allowing them to do that.”

If you walked into your new school building to music that suits your personality, what would the song be? “I really like to listen to rap to get pumped up, but I don’t think I’d play that in the workplace. ‘Walking on Sunshine’ was my song in third grade, so maybe that.”

MacDonald, left, and Alvarez hang out with some middle-school students, from left, Isaiah Vega Lopez, Sophia Sinnema and Ellie Vanderpool

Shelly Alvarez

Other positions you have held in education: Alvarez has been with Cedar Springs her entire career. She taught kindergarten, second, fourth, fifth and sixth grades; was an instructional support coach; and was the middle school interim dean of students before taking this position to start year 17 in the district. 

What about jobs outside education? “I grew up on a farm, so that’d probably be my first job, because it didn’t matter how old you were: the horses needed to be fed, the cows needed to be taken care of, the hay needed to be baled.” 

After high school and through college, Alvarez worked at Country Fresh Dairy, both in the factory and testing products in the lab, to put herself through college debt-free. 

Education/degrees: 

  • Associate degree, Montcalm Community College
  • Bachelor’s degree, education and history, Grand Valley State University
  • Master’s degree, teaching and early childhood, Western Michigan University
  • Master’s degree, educational leadership, Western Michigan University
The Alvarez family enjoys history-themed travel (courtesy)

What would you like to share about your family? “I am blessed with some pretty amazing humans to share my life with,” she says. Those include husband, Aaron, and their four daughters: Gloria, a high-school graduate; Hope, a junior; Sophia, a sophomore; and Gwenyth, a seventh-grader. 

Hobbies/interests: “I love history; outside of school, our family likes to travel a lot and do a lot of historical stops. For example, for fall break we’ll hit up Appomattox Courthouse, where the Civil War ended. I’ll take my mom to Mount Vernon, which is George Washington’s home. I love to pull history into anything we can. … We also like to camp, and I like to hunt – I am a deer hunter. And in the summer I spend a lot of time at Pine Ridge Bible Camp, serving, teaching and helping with behavior supports.”

What kind of kid were you at the age of students at your new school? “I was an ‘A’ student; I did well in school. I was also a class clown and a mouthy, sarcastic student. The teachers who enjoyed good jokes and humor – we got along beautifully; the teachers who liked things to be very black and white – I think I annoyed them. So those students don’t bother me (in my role now) because I love humor.”

What’s the biggest lesson you have learned from students? Alvarez’s eyes gleam as she recounts this story: “I’ve always known that students are always fighting battles. There’s always struggles going on. But a year ago, a sweet girl in my sixth-grade class lost her mom to cancer. This girl watched her mom fight cancer for almost three years. And she was fierce. She was faithful. To see how she could stay the course (in school) and articulate when she just needed a day to stay home … That young lady taught me a lot about how storm clouds come, and downright tsunamis come, but you figure out how to get in a canoe, one day at a time, and paddle out of it. She is an inspiration, for sure.”

If you walked into your new school building to music that suits your personality, what would the song be? “Anything upbeat. Maybe ‘Walking on Sunshine.’”

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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is a reporter (covering Cedar Springs, Grandville, Lowell and Rockford), editor, copy editor and social media manager. She is an award-winning journalist who got her start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate, she later returned to Calvin to help manage its national writing festival. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press, Fox 17 and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio

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