Category Archives: Schools

Vicksburg High School Earns State, National Rankings

By Steve Fryling
District Communications Specialist

Springtime is the traditional season for awards and honors in education, and Vicksburg High School (VHS) has been placed in the positive spotlight recently by both state and national news outlets who rank high schools in Michigan and nationwide.

The national magazine U.S. News and World Report recently ranked VHS in the top 100 high schools in the state and awarded it a national silver medal. The rankings were based on state and national test scores, graduation rate, and measures of college readiness for the class of 2014-2015. VHS was ranked 82nd in the state and in the top 15 percent of all high schools in the nation. The U.S. News and World Report website (usnews.com) contains all of the rankings both nationally and statewide, and provides detailed information about each high school. According to the site, only 12 percent of all high schools in the nation earn a gold or silver medal, indicating high student performance and college readiness.

A statewide magazine has Vicksburg High School an “Academic State Champion”, one of only 54 champs in the state. The designation was made by the publishers of Bridge Magazine, which is dedicated to improvement in education, health, and governance in Michigan, in an article released February 14. According to the article, “The schools (listed in the article) are best at preparing students for success after graduation.”

After studying graduation and college data from the graduating classes of 2009-2011, state champions were selected from schools with students in every economic category so that schools with students of similar income profiles could be compared. These schools had the highest percentages of students who scored as “college ready” on the ACT, as well as percentages of students who enrolled in postsecondary schools and those who graduated or were still in school after four years.

Principal Keevin O’Neill pointed out that both of these accolades were honors for the whole district, not just the high school. “It took the work and skill of the staff of each elementary and middle school to get the students ready for what they need to do in high school. It is a team effort.”

Charlie Glaes, Vicksburg superintendent, echoed those sentiments noting that, “These things don’t happen by accident, but are a result of a whole community of parents, taxpayers, and educators who saw to it that we invested in success for our kids. We know that these investments pay off, and awards like these are more proof of that.”

The ratings in the Bridge Magazine article placed Vicksburg in the category of schools with “above average incomes” by using data on free and reduced lunch rates. During the study period, the free and reduced lunch percentage for Vicksburg was 26 percent in 2009-2011, but has risen to 34 percent since then.

Vicksburg and 13 other Michigan high schools were selected from 179 schools in this income category for the state champion designation after it was learned that the school is also among the top 10 percent of the 179 for the number of graduates still in college or earning a degree after four years. Records show that 58 percent of Vicksburg graduates from the classes of 2009-2011 earned a degree or were still in college after four years.

Other academic champions listed in the area, in various income classes, include South Haven, Kalamazoo Central and Loy Norrix. Some high schools in the same income class as Vicksburg that earned the designation include Grand Haven, Mona Shores, Dearborn, East Lansing, and City High School in Grand Rapids.

Bridge Magazine, in a related article, linked high levels of students being successful in college to six factors which ranged from poverty levels to college “promise” programs such as the one in Kalamazoo, to college counseling of high school students and coaching and support services offered to college students by the colleges they attend. Also noteworthy is the inclusion of certificate programs in the category of “college completion”. These include careers such as hairdressing, nursing assistant, and information technology worker.

More details about the award and how champions were selected can be found on the Bridge Magazine website at http://www.bridgemi.com/talent-education/bridge-magazines-2017-academic-state-champs.

Schoolcraft High School Students Study Social Media

By Sue Moore

Parents often worry about their children spending too much time on their cell phones, tablets or computer but they may not be sure of what they can do about it, said Ric Seager, Schoolcraft High School principal. He discussed the issue with an audience of parents at a recent gathering to discuss the world of technology and its effect on students.

Earlier in the day, the high school students at Schoolcraft went through a day of classes related to social media. Subjects included social media safety, how the world sees a person online, cyberbullying, electronic communication through the law, screen time and your brain and an individual’s digital footprint. Students rotated through each session, met in discussion groups and finally joined together in an assembly dealing with texting and driving.

There were lots of lessons as the “take-away” for the day, Seager told the parents after they watched a movie about “Screen Agers, growing up in the digital age.” Several of the parents were concerned about the use of iPads that the school has furnished their teenagers and how to allow them to do their homework and spend less time playing online games.

Seager responded that all of the iPads go through the school’s filters. But he acknwoeldged that doesn’t stop kids from playing games on them. He cautioned that it’s important to set limitations as these devices are not going away. Those who can figure out how to manage the devices will have a big advantage over others.

“Have clear expectations for your kids. Set strong boundaries and over time you can give them more and more autonomy, which is really empowering to kids.”

“My philosophy is we don’t want technology to get in the way of good communication. Digital is great for maintenance but bad for building good communications. It’s important to look for the right balance. We need to know and understand it.”

A parent asked what the next step should be in showing their technology concerns. Seager urged them to “come to school board meetings and let the trustees know how you feel. Get more people involved. Talk to your peers and let’s pull it together.”

Vicksburg Schools are Spending Dollars Effectively

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Clockwise from top: Emily Proctor, Dennis Kirby (assistant principal VMS), Amy Dunn (School Psychologist) Jessie Dekoning (Title I Staff at Vicksburg Middle School), Matt VanDussen (principal VMS) make their way through reams of documents while preparing for the state’s review team.

By Steve Fryling,
District Communications Specialist

Following recent media attention about some schools in Michigan misappropriating funds, a recent review of Vicksburg Schools revealed that state and federal grant funds were well spent.

Most school districts receive grant funds from the state and the federal governments to help educate at-risk students and provide professional development to teachers. In the past year, the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) decided to do a random, on-site review of Vicksburg Schools, to make sure the funds were being spent properly.

The review is a very strenuous and meticulous process. It began last summer when the school received notice by the MDE that it had been selected for a random review. The district spent months gathering a team of staff and parents to gather the expenditure documents, create a presentation of results, and prepare for a team from the state to interview teachers and administrators from Vicksburg Middle School and Sunset Elementary, along with district administrators.

The team was led by Gail Van Daff, director of curriculum and instruction, as well as Karen Hill, assistant to the superintendent. Much of the site work at VMS and Sunset was led by staff members Emily Proctor, Jesse Dekoning, and Mary Hess-Quinones.

In January, the team from the Department spent two days in the district, interviewing staff and administrators and poring over documents pertaining to how funds were spent and the results the district was getting. Team members went to both Sunset and VMS to see what was happening in person. The team then went back to Lansing to analyze the evidence it gathered and to provide a review.

“While all of the results of the review have not yet been released, the feedback provided by the state could not be more encouraging,” said Van Daff. Overall, Vicksburg is near the very top of the upper echelon of districts reviewed in terms of effectiveness of their expenditures, according to Van Daff. “The reviewers were very generous with their kind comments, including several personal accolades from MDE reviewers. In fact, one said that she would want to send her grandchildren to Vicksburg if she could. It was very heartwarming and encouraging to hear.”

Stephen Goss, assistant superintendent, was pleased, but not surprised, by the findings. “Our leadership team and staff members are not only fine educators but are very aware that public resources need to be spent effectively, whether that money is from local residents, state grants, or federal dollars. To me, this review is further confirmation that we are spending the taxpayers’ money as efficiently and effectively as possible. This is only possible with hours upon hours of hard work by all of the staff members involved. I couldn’t be more proud.”

State Superintendent Visits Schoolcraft Schools

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State Superintendent of Education, Brian Whiston, paused to read a book to Kelli Frey’s kindergarten class in the school library.

By Sue Moore

Southwest Michigan school superintendents described their districts’ triumphs and obstacles to the state’s top education official in a meeting early last month.
The superintendents met with Brian Whiston, state superintendent of education, in Schoolcraft on March 9.

Whiston toured Schoolcraft’s elementary, middle and high schools, read to kindergartners in Kelli Frey’s class, visited a middle school science day display, and interviewed two seniors who are participating in the Early Middle College program.

Whiston’s visit and meeting with superintendents put a spotlight on smaller school districts. Before his appointment to the statewide post in 2016, he had been superintendent in Dearborn, a district with over 19,000 students. Whiston’s education work began with teaching third grade in Oakland County and included a stint as lobbyist for the Oakland County Intermediate School District before moving to the Dearborn post.

Schoolcraft Supt. Wayne Stitt said it’s “a great privilege to have the state superintendent of schools visit our district to see the wonderful things that our staff and students are doing. It was great to hear that Whiston was impressed with our programs and services. We showed him how a small school can deliver a high-quality education. There are over 800 districts and academies in the state and he only has time to visit a few districts each year. We were fortunate to be selected.”

The department’s biggest challenge these days is how to implement the “Every Student Success Act” (ESSA), signed into law by President Obama in December 2015. Whiston’s department has been charged with implementing the federal standards. The department has also been involved in the School Resource Office plan which has promised to close 38 nonperforming schools across the state, including two in Kalamazoo.

Schoolcraft is not one of these schools, but Superintendent Rusty Stitt and his administrators took the opportunity to stress what it is like to work with fewer resources than a much larger district. The poverty rate in Schoolcraft has inched up from 10 percent in 2008 to over 20 percent in 2017 while the median income fell 29 percent during the same time frame.

Schoolcraft has incorporated the Reading Now Network to improve early literacy into the curriculum along with other districts in Region 7. This was an important topic in the afternoon meeting with superintendents; administrators signed a large banner which incorporated the tenets of the Reading Now program.

School districts will focus on collaboration and instructional strategies that implement the Roots of Reading Success, according to the document. “The Reading Now Network is a bright spot in public education,” said Kalamazoo RESA Superintendent David Campbell. “The core strategies, when implemented effectively and collaboratively, are showing very positive results.”

Schoolcraft School Board Supports Young 5’s Protocol

By Sue Moore

A young five-year-old’s readiness for school is often hard to define. The administrators and parents who must make this difficult decision often wrestle with what could be a life-changing event for the child. The Schoolcraft School Board heard a discussion of a new protocol that will be used by Kris DeVoe, who teaches the young 5’s class, and Matt Webster, principal of the elementary school.

They were asking for the board’s support of an evaluation form where parents can see the data first-hand before a decision is made.

“Sometimes we have to say no, the child is not ready for kindergarten,” DeVoe said. “Now we will have a readiness factor checklist that gives everyone better insight for decision making. It will help us keep the integrity as there is such an opportunity for gray here.”

“The downside is that other school districts may use a straight age cut-off date and we would lose the potential student for years to come if there is a disagreement,” said Superintendent Rusty Stitt.

Board members agreed to use the protocol.

In other business, Supt. Dave Campbell of the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency (KRESA) was present to report on the year’s activity and services. His agency provides services to all nine of the county school districts, especially with special education classes and oversight of Schoolcraft’s program.

Darby Fetzer, president of the school board, read into the record a statement pertaining to the board’s March 1 workshop meeting. The statement spoke to any actions or discussions that occurred at the meeting, saying they should not be construed as proper actions of the board. It also said the board will not take any future action based on the conversations at that meeting and will not rely on anything said at the time in making any future decisions.

The statement was from a legal opinion the board requested as a follow-up to that meeting.

Although the meeting was open to the public, it was not covered by the South County News, and a report of the meeting from the school district was not available.

Vicksburg Schools Considering New Auditor

By Travis Smola

The Vicksburg school board voted to let Asst. Supt. Steve Goss decide whether to switch auditing firms.

Goss presented the idea to the board at its March meeting at Indian Lake Elementary. The district has been served by the auditing firm of BDO for almost 30 years. But Goss has been considering a switch to Plante Moran for quite a while now.

It’s not a monetary-based decision; the fees for Plante Moran are comparable to BDO. “This is not a cost savings initiative,” Goss said. Instead the idea is that a new firm could potentially identify areas where the district could do better. “I think there is value in getting some additional perspective and a fresh set of eyes,” Goss said.

Trustee Rudy Callen agreed switching auditors was a healthy practice, saying he is familiar with how an auditor and the schools could become overly trusting and complacent. “It is common practice and it is good practice, even if it’s just for a year,” Callen said.

Goss noted Plante Moran would probably be expecting a commitment longer than a year. He also feels the firm may be a slightly better fit because it has a slightly stronger commitment to education. The firm serves more K-12 districts than any other in Michigan.

Most of the board agreed it might be in its best interest to have a more rigorous and potentially more revealing audit. Goss said while that could be a scary thing to think about, it’s also something that would be healthy.

He also said it won’t hurt the board’s relationship with BDO if it chooses to go back. “It’s a pretty routine thing. Clients are moving back and forth between auditors,” Goss said.

In other news at the meeting, Curriculum Director Gail VanDaff and Director of Technology Don Puckett gave a technology plan update. The schools purchased 2,600 new Chromebooks this year and almost every student at the schools has one.

And 180 new security cameras have been installed throughout the district. The next big project over the summer will be to replace aging paging systems in the schools. Puckett said most are probably around 30 years old.

Vice President Carol Lohman asked about the future of the computer labs now that Chromebooks have become commonplace in the schools.

Puckett said this will depend on the building. The elementary schools are still utilizing labs heavily as part of Project Lead the Way. Other labs may be re-purposed into classrooms or for testing or casual environments for students. The decision will ultimately be left to the principals.

Clayton DeVries Selected to Join the All-State Jazz Band

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Clayton DeVries at the piano, one of the many instruments he can play.

By Sue Moore

“My hope is to connect the world to jazz.” That’s Clayton DeVries, a senior at Vicksburg High School who has amassed many honors playing saxophone. But his musical goal is to bring jazz to places where there isn’t much music to speak of, such as small towns across America. Jazz is his passion.

“Jazz is the greatest musical art form there is. It lets you speak through it by expressing yourself and how you want to play. I really want to perform in these many out-of-the way places, although I’m not so good at teaching what I know,” DeVries said.

In addition to his musical talent, he has been in Boy Scout Troop 254 in Schoolcraft. He is closing in on his Eagle Scout award with the construction of four park benches he has built for the Portage Senior Center. He turned 18 on March 6, the day he will have them installed and the project completed to attain that coveted rank.

He’s auditioning at several colleges hoping to major in jazz; on March 8, he’ll audition at the New School in New York City. Previously, he passed a pre-screening, then sent a video and was chosen to come to the big city to show them what he can do. He has been accepted at Western Michigan University and is considering Michigan State University, University of Illinois and University of North Texas.

The biggest honor so far: He was one of 17 players chosen for the Michigan All-State Jazz band. He had tried out for it as a sophomore and junior but didn’t get accepted. He took a lot of lessons and did plenty of practicing this time, taking second place on tenor sax and honorable mention on alto sax.

Ben Rosier, Vicksburg’s band instructor said that “after transferring from Schoolcraft schools, Clayton has made an impact on our program, especially in the jazz departmenti His passion for the jazz genre has propelled him into the upper echelon of students in the state. Clayton will be featured as a soloist on our Top Dawgs jazz ensemble album along with many of his classmates.”

Studying at Interlochen last summer was the “greatest experience ever,” DeVries said. “I’ve had terrific professors and made some life-long friends there.” He won a first place chair on tenor saxophone in the Interlochen jazz ensemble.

Last fall, DeVries was chosen to play alto sax at the St. Cecilia Music Center in Grand Rapids, going there on Tuesdays for practice and playing lots of older big-band music that he really likes. He played in the Hastings all-star band last year and now helps with the Vicksburg Middle School music program during second hour of the day at VHS.

The fact he can play a large assortment of instruments is a bonus. He is mostly self-taught on most of them. He owns three saxophones – soprano, alto and tenor – as well as flute, piccolo, clarinet and piano. He plays all of them. “I came to VHS for the curriculum. My mom coaxed me to go to one rehearsal for concert band when I was a freshman. I had started playing in fifth grade but didn’t really want to try out for band. It took one rehearsal and I decided to stick with it.”

Now he practices four to five hours a day and has taken lessons that he said help him know what the jazz voice means and how best to implement it.