In Flint, an Investment in Teachers Helps Students Rise Above Challenges

With all of the bad news that has come out of Flint in recent years, it has been all too easy to overlook the successes of our city’s brightest lights—its children. As Superintendent of Flint Community Schools, it is my belief that schools can and must be a sanctuary of safety and possibility for all of the young people in their care, even as the city around them struggles. So it’s with tremendous pride that I get to do a little bragging about the resilient students and amazing teachers of this community.

Decades in the making, Flint’s economic collapse has left many of our neighborhoods in financial peril, contributing to a climate of violence and instability.  The appalling water crisis has done untold harm to our children and families, many of whom were already strained by a lack of resources. Sadly, these challenges our students face—and, in too many cases, the traumas they have experienced as a result—stack the odds against them before they even get to school.

Yet, Flint’s children continue to show amazing resilience as they learn and grow. In recent years, and with the support of their teachers, our students have shown they are capable of inspiring successes. Their assessment scores are evidence of the outstanding progress they are making. Students in several grade levels achieved significant academic growth on the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessment between fall 2015 and spring 2016. Our first grade students made more growth in mathematics than their grade-level peers in schools across the country who started with similar scores in the fall. Flint third-graders showed growth at the 64th percentile in language arts, and fourth-graders showed growth in the 65th percentile in science. Sixth-graders showed strong academic growth in reading (72nd percentile), language arts (76th percentile), and science (78th percentile).

How did Flint’s schools achieve this, given all the constraints and challenges the children face? By investing district resources wisely in the people who can most impact a child’s learning: Teachers. During the past school year our district, with the support of our school board, embarked on a focused strategy to ensure our teachers received high-quality and in-depth training and tools enabling them to better address our students’ social, emotional, and learning challenges.  The results speak for themselves.

There is increasing recognition across the country that schools and districts need to more effectively address student trauma and other stresses. Though root causes may be outside of the classroom, this stress is toxic to students’ ability to learn and grow. In Flint, this need is especially acute. As a result, we’ve focused across the district to ensure that students receive the nonacademic supports they need—including nurses assigned to all schools, health navigators, mindfulness training,  trauma support and community education—to overcome the barriers they may face in their homes and in our community.

In order to help elevate our students’ learning, our teachers and school leaders need a clearer picture of the specific areas where students are struggling—and where there are opportunities to help them advance. We know that many of our students perform below grade level academically, but knowing this is not enough. Teachers need to know precisely where their students are struggling in order to set a trajectory for learning and growth. So, across our district, school leaders and teachers alike have made a concerted effort to improve the way we use information from the MAP assessment to inform our instruction and help Flint students grow. District-wide, teachers and leaders engage in Data Dialogues coupled with Instructional Learning Cycles to promote collaborate inquiry and an intentional approach to using data to impact teaching and learning.

During the last school year our teachers immersed themselves in targeted professional learning to understand how to use data to personalize learning and drive growth. They have learned to use assessment results to evaluate students’ needs and identify the instructional strategies and interventions that would help move students forward.

Strong data use across the district also helps us support students who change schools frequently—not an uncommon experience for kids caught in circumstances beyond their control.  By enabling teachers and counselors to quickly and reliably determine what their new students understand and can do, rather than guessing based on initial observations, they can structure learning plans that build upon each child’s knowledge and skill base. 

Even in crisis you we must remind ourselves that we as educators have only one year to get it right for our students—failure is not an option. During this past year I have had to constantly remind others of this while maintaining a laser-like focus on achievement. Our recent crisis has caused me to move with a greater sense of urgency.  I have learned that while in crisis one reaches a point where you begin to tune out the noise and focus on what you can control or where you can have the greatest impact; for me that is the education of 5,400 children and the 600 leaders, teachers and staff member who are charged with this sometimes thankless task.

During my 2016 Commencement Address I stated, "I know you have had to comfort your younger brothers and sisters from their fears…I know you have had to return to school many days as this tragedy played out without the simple convenience of going to the nearest water fountain…but you came and you studied and I know you are the bigger man and woman for your struggles…as you face the challenges yet to confront you, you have the strength of experience…the strength of Lincoln and Dr. King and President Obama to light your lamp…and that is no small thing in a world where victory goes to the courageous, the experienced, the committed,  the self-confident! You have true grit!"

I am continually inspired by Flint students’ growth. Despite the monumental odds they have faced and continue to face, our students make significant growth in key areas of academic achievement. With these strides, they are well positioned to become the leaders of tomorrow. Together, we are addressing and overcoming the hardships facing our community, and succeeding even in the most trying of times.

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