Dispelling The Myth Award-Winner: North Godwin Elementary

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North Godwin Elementary School is in the kind of community very familiar to Michiganders — a once solidly working-class community that has fallen on hard times. The last big local employer, a General Motors stamping plant, closed more than a year ago, leaving 77 percent of the students — a mixture of white, Hispanic, African American, and a few Asian students -- eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.

In many communities, academic achievement of students deteriorates along with the economy. But at North Godwin, located just outside of Grand Rapids, academic achievement has improved even as the local economy has fallen apart.

So, for example, every single sixth-grader met state reading standards in the fall of 2009, compared to 88 percent in the state; and 94 percent of North Godwin’s sixth-graders met state math standards, compared to 82 percent in the state.

And it isn’t just about meeting standards but exceeding them. In fact, 56 percent of the school’s low-income third-grade students exceeded standards in math, compared to only 37 percent of low-income third-graders in the rest of the state.

The results are not an accident. Says teacher Pat Brower: “We’re a family.  We’re all willing to do what’s needed.”

Arelis Diaz, who was principal of the school during its dramatic improvement, attributes much of the results to teachers. For the past few years, she has been working to bring such success to the district’s middle and high schools.

“When I first started,” Diaz says, “about 50 percent of teachers were willing to try anything and half were resisters,” a term she uses for teachers who “feel sorry for [students] rather than help them.”

But once teachers see every child can learn at high levels, Diaz says, “it transforms them to the core.”

North Godwin brings teachers together before school starts to study state standards and build a curriculum map that makes sure they teach, for example, fifth-graders the Bill of Rights and the other content spelled out in the state’s standards. They assess their students regularly and use the data to challenge the successful students and catch up the stragglers all the while working on building the students’ confidence and sense that they can do difficult things if they work at it.

Hiring a teacher presents an opportunity.  When hiring, the district focuses on three questions: Is the prospective teacher going to have the effect we expect? Is he or she going to be able to handle the behavior challenges? And is he or she going to believe in our children?  Only superstar teachers are hired for the third year, which is when tenure kicks in, says Diaz.

“You don’t just get tenure,” Diaz says. “You earn tenure.”

Although a great deal is expected of teachers, they say that the support they get means the job is do-able.

“Initially it’s overwhelming because there’s so much to do,” says Michelle Morrow, who came to North Godwin after teaching in the Chicago Public School System. “But then it feels like support. The leadership in this district has been amazing.”

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