Kentwood Public Schools' Challenger Elementary was one of five schools named 2022 "Building of Hope Schools" by Education Trust-Midwest for the pre-pandemic academic growth and progress of underserved student groups. The only other Kent County school on the list was Vista Charter Academy. Pictured is scene from the first day of school in Kentwood at Explorer Elementary on Aug. 22, 2022. (Cory Morse | MLive.com) Cory Morse | MLive.com
GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Five Michigan schools were recognized this week for having outstanding academic progress and growth among underserved student groups prior to the COVID-19 pandemic first starting to impact students in 2020.
Schools across the state and country continue to work to help students recover from learning loss during the pandemic.
Education Trust-Midwest, a nonpartisan group that advocates for student achievement, announced Thursday, Dec. 8 that these 2022 “Building the Hope Schools” located in Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Warren, Pontiac and Tawas City can offer strategies that can be leveraged for educational recovery.
The students are in the top 25% among all Michigan students for academic proficiency or for above-average student growth, according to an Ed Trust analysis of Michigan school data from the three school years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The schools highlighted saw excellent academic performance among diverse student populations, including students of color, English language learners, and students from low-income backgrounds. Underserved groups were among the most affected by the pandemic’s disruption to learning.
“Their successful pre-pandemic strategies can provide a roadmap, particularly as schools work to help our most underserved students who were most impacted during COVID-19 recover from the pandemic,” said Jen DeNeal, director for policy and research at Education Trust-Midwest, in a statement.
“They model the way for educational recovery by creating conditions to ensure that students from all backgrounds have the opportunity and supports needed to achieve at high levels.”
To identify the schools, researchers conducted a comprehensive quantitative analysis of each school’s performance in the 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years, according to a news release from the policy group.
Ed Trust analysts studied Michigan school data and also conducted in-person visits and interviews of the schools’ learning environments before selecting the award winners, the release said.
“Building the Hope Schools truly represent what it means to provide opportunities for all students, demonstrating that our public schools can make great strides for our most underserved students while serving as culturally- and linguistically-affirming places for children from all backgrounds,” DeNeal said.
Three of the five schools are traditional public schools and two are charter schools. Each received a $3,500 award. Two West Michigan schools in Kent County were among those recognized: Challenger Elementary in Kentwood Public Schools, a suburb of Grand Rapids and Vista Charter Academy in the city.
Ed Trust recognized Challenger Elementary because its Black students, students from low-income backgrounds, and English learners all demonstrated growth above the state averages in both English Language Arts and Math for three straight years.
Challenger had 362 students enrolled the 2021-2022 school year: Black students represented 46.6% of the population, economically disadvantaged students, 80.9% and English learners 22.6%, according to state data.
The news release said the school stood out due to its focus on data, as well as supportive, welcoming relationships with students and parents.
Progress is monitored regularly at Challenger to help identify gaps in students’ learning and how to push those already meeting grade-level standards. All students are taught grade-level standards and support provided where needed helps students make progress, Ed Trust said.
Challenger Elementary Principal Teressa Gatza said celebrating diversity is the key to helping students thrive. She said when a student feels valued for their background, they feel more comfortable in the classroom and are able to succeed academically.
“We look at each kid as an individual, and we want them to be celebrated for their differences,” said Gatza, who was cited for setting “a welcoming tone from the time students arrive with her energy, excitement, and enthusiasm.”
“We want to honor that, and I think when they feel safe and secure and heard, they are willing to take those academic risks and they feel confident about who they are.”
Vista Charter Academy takes a similar approach when working with a large population of English learners. Vista made the list because its English learners demonstrated growth above the state average in both English and math for three consecutive years.
“Vista Charter Academy stands out for its teachers’ attention to English learners’ needs in classroom instruction and data-driven instruction. A strong EL staff helps ensure EL students have the support they need. Students learn early to monitor their own progress through frequent assessments and data-monitoring, either weekly or bi-weekly,” the news release said.
The Y5 through eighth-grade school enrolled 623 students the 2021-22 school years.
Principal Kristen Hekkema said 35% of students at the charter school are English language learners, and 93% of the school’s population is students of color.
In addition to having a strong curriculum, Vista Charter helps students thrive by having teachers and staff who are ready to accommodate its students. The school has five teachers certified in English as a Second Language (ESL), who pull students into small groups for one-on-one instruction in reading and vocabulary.
“An ESL teacher will teach the same lesson that the teacher is teaching, to a smaller group of English language learners, so that the vocabulary is broken down within a text, for example, so that kids actually understand what the text is about,” Hekkema explained. “So, they’re receiving a different type of instruction alongside their grade-level peers within the classroom setting.”
As diverse schools with outstanding student growth, the five schools serve as a model for how educators can create educational environments that ensure students from all backgrounds have the support they need to thrive academically, DeNeal said.
The five schools are also being commended for engaging in “culturally- and linguistically-responsive schoolwide practices that facilitate students’ outstanding academic progress and growth, making them true outliers in the state of Michigan,” according to the Building The Hope Schools website.
The schools were also evaluated for having affirming practices and a positive school climate.
Each of the schools have a student body that is mostly made up of low-income students, and four of the five schools’ population is comprised of primarily students of color.
Schools were not considered for the award if they were a magnet school or if they were an application or selective enrollment school, Ed Trust spokesperson Jennifer Mrozowski said.
Here is information below about the three other schools selected by Ed Trust.
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