Pencil shavings

Transforming education in a low-performing district

One year into $15.5M grant, GVSU's proven track record helps Battle Creek students achieve

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The presence of Grand Valley in Battle Creek extends far beyond its office suite on West Michigan Avenue in the city’s business district. 

Battle Creek students now in the fifth grade are considering, with their parents, enrolling in the new STEM Innovation Center. Battle Creek Public School teachers continue to collaborate with Grand Valley faculty members on a curriculum unique to the district. Seasoned faculty members are mentoring new teachers. Staff at an outreach center are assisting residents with college and career advising, and talent development.

This action stems from a $15.5 million grant Grand Valley received from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to partner with BCPS and help, as one person said, aid “the culture of vitality” in Battle Creek. And it’s only the first year of a five-year commitment.

La June Montgomery Tabron, president and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, said this grant dovetails on the $51 million grant from WKKF to BCPS to support quality education while bridging the racial and economic divides in the district. Awarded to the district in 2017, the grant is the largest investment WKKF has made to a school district.

“A culture of vitality speaks to the overall tone of our community and how we’re catering to the various interests around the issues of economic growth and opportunity,” Tabron said. “They combine to transform a place into one where people want to live, work and play.”

Tabron said Grand Valley administrators and faculty members have proven the perfect fit to partner with BCPS because of the university’s demonstrated track record in advancing STEM programs, training and supporting teachers. 

A tour guide raises his hand to get the attention of a group of students on tour of Grand Valleys campus

Students from Battle Creek Public Schools participate in a 2019 tour of the Allendale Campus. A partnership among GVSU, BCPS and W.K. Kellogg Foundation was established last year to help transform education in the district. (courtesy photo)

Reach of the grant

The grant’s focus on offering professional development and mentoring for teachers is key to developing a talent pipeline, leaders said. Considered by Michigan’s Department of Education as a low-performing school district, BCPS has struggled to recruit and retain teachers. The number of BCPS teachers fell from 361 in 2012-2013 to 330 in 2016-2017. A declining student population (a loss of nearly 250 students within 10 years) also means a decrease in per-capita state funding, which district leaders said translates to less money for teacher training.

Kimberly Carter, BCPS superintendent, said teachers are essential to transforming the district by advancing excellence in teaching practices, improving academic achievement and boosting enrollment. Investing in teachers is equally important, she added.

“I truly believe our BCPS teachers are the most dedicated, hard-working educators in Michigan,” Carter said. “We need to continue to invest in and retain teachers in this community, while also attracting more talent to Battle Creek to meet our hiring needs.”

Paula Lancaster, professor of special education in the Department of Teaching and Learning, is a co-principle investigator for the grant. Lancaster said teacher mentoring has been the most intense work for the College of Education but perhaps the most rewarding. Components of the program match six student teachers from Grand Valley with an intern consultant, who visits them about 20 times a year to provide a range of personalized support.

icon of an apple and a book

STEM Innovation Center

Kris Pachla, director of Grand Valley’s Regional Math and Science Center, led a team of faculty members and BCPS teachers in designing a new place-based curriculum of five units for the STEM Innovation Center, a magnet school that opened last fall in a wing of Battle Creek Central High School with 50 sixth graders. Additional cohorts will be added in 2020 and 2021 until the school houses about 180 students in sixth-eighth grades.

Place-based learning is guided by projects and meant to keep students highly engaged in solving problems. Pachla also said it’s meant to weave through seemingly unrelated subjects like English and science with connections points.

The first year has gone well, according to district administrators. Deborah Nuzzi, BCPS director of secondary education, said sixth graders have adapted to the curriculum beautifully because they are engaged. “When students find relevance in the curriculum and a presentation that allows them to think and be curious, along with hands-on exploration, they are willing learners,” Nuzzi said.

Plans over the summer include designing the seventh grade curriculum, recruiting current fifth graders and hiring additional teachers for the STEM Innovation Center, Pachla said 

Second year of grant brings more opportunities

As the grant moves into its second year, dual enrollment courses will be added for high school students; an education-focused camp will give students another summer option; students interested in health, nursing and education careers will come to campus for tours; and graduating seniors interested in health or education can apply for scholarships to attend Grand Valley.

Jean Nagelkerk, vice provost for health, is a co-principle investigator for the grant with Lancaster. Nagelkerk said the Battle Creek Regional Outreach Center, which formally opened in January at 8 Michigan Ave. W. (one half-block from the WKKF headquarters), put a community face on the university’s presence.

Staff at the outreach center work closely with high school students from the region on college applications and financial aid questions. They also assist area residents with career exploration and provide community programming.

As a superintendent, Carter wants BCPS students to grow academically and succeed in their future pathways. She said the grant and Grand Valley’s partnership provides avenues for students to do just that.

“When we launched the collaboration between GVSU and BCPS, we sought to strengthen our community and bring access to new higher education options so that all children and families can thrive,” Carter said. “We’ve been thrilled to see how this relationship has already had such a positive impact on students, teachers and our broader community.” 

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