Education blueprint: North Godwin Elementary

May 16, 2011

This week, What’s Working focuses on education by taking a look at one Michigan school that went from academic mediocrity to being a model for educational reforms in the state. North Godwin Elementary is located just south of Grand Rapids in a working class community with a high immigrant population. Many families in the area are refugees from countries such as Bosnia, Cuba, Vietnam, and Liberia. A high number of students spend a few years learning English as a second language. 

When Arelis Diaz arrived as a teacher at North Godwin Elementary in 1995, the students were struggling to reach proficiency in basic skills. She spent five years as a teacher, and then served as principal of the school from 2000 to 2005. In that time, North Godwin’s students began excelling on standardized tests, bringing student proficiency rates to upwards of 80 percent across all subjects. That academic success at North Godwin continues today. The school has been the recipient of praise and awards for its turnaround, including the “Dispelling the Myth” award in 2010, given by The Educational Trust. 

Today Ms. Diaz works as a Program Officer for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which focuses on creating strong, safe, and supportive communities for children.

But back in 1995, as Ms. Diaz settled in at North Godwin, she says there were a number of problems facing the school.

“We weren’t meeting expectations. We had very few students who were meeting or exceeding our state standards based on our Michigan assessment of the MEAP. There was not a lot of collaboration within the teachers and the teaching staff, and we did not have a lot of family engagement.”

A big part of Diaz’s approach to education reform is to study student performance and test data, then model instruction to address deficiencies. The formation of a program called “Parents Are Teachers” is a good example of this, as Diaz explains.

“That really started from the need that we experienced. And when we looked at our data, and we looked at who our students were that were not meeting our expectations, a lot of them came from our immigrant families. So we produced this program and we had it in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Bosnian. And we provided the strategies that the families needed to be able to enrich their experience, their academic experience, but also to really see it as, ‘Let’s partner with them and let’s give them the literacy skills that we know our students need. Let’s not just tell them about the skills, but show them and model it for them, and also engage them in the process.’”

Diaz says engaging parents in the academic process is vital to catching up students who have fallen behind in basic skills. Speaking again of the Parents Are Teachers program, Diaz explains how the teachers gave parents strategies for helping their children learn.

“The teachers gave it to them (the families) in their own language, showed them how to do it, and partnered with them. So the students and the parents are working together and they’re gaining the same skills that the students are learning during the school day. And then, after school it’s also mirrored to be able to kind of unwrap the mystery of the education system for some of our families that really have a difficult time maneuvering the system.”

But the problems facing schools are often too large for a single program to remedy. After captaining and witnessing the turnaround at North Godwin Elementary, Diaz says what sets North Godwin apart from other schools is the dedication of teachers and their belief in the students’ abilities.

“Definitely the belief system. Efficacy. Believing that all children can learn. And the attitudes of the teachers there, I feel is that they will do whatever they need to do to ensure student learning. And if that means staying after school with a student, or giving up their lunch period to be able to work with a student... Whether it’s a regular classroom teacher working with a special education teacher, or working with the English language teacher, they’re all working together in that building to ensure maximum student learning. Whatever it takes, they’re going to ensure that that happens.”

Eliot Johnson – Michigan Radio Newsroom