Before Flint, Mich. made national headlines because of its water crisis, the Michigan State University Office of K-12 Outreach was there working to enhance learning for the city’s children. The university partnership with Flint Community Schools is creating a model for long-term transformation in an urban district, with funding from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.
Now in the second year, up to 25 MSU specialists and faculty members continue to work closely with educators in the school district to improve not only teaching and student learning, but also leadership and culture.
“We are providing on-the-ground support to effect educational change in a district that is committed to increasing student progress,” said Assistant Dean for K-12 Outreach Barbara Markle, who with her staff was in the schools on the first day to greet families again this fall. “We have been able to develop a high level of trust with the teachers and administrators who are so dedicated to the children of Flint.”
The partnership, funded by a $4 million grant from the Mott Foundation, is among the most significant examples of Michigan State’s commitment to help solve problems related to health and well-being in Flint.
As part of their work, Markle and her team are helping Flint Community Schools (FCS) collaborate with community organizations and other departments at MSU to mitigate the potential effects of lead poisoning.
Faculty members across the College of Education also lead various projects in Flint. For example, researchers from the CREATE for STEM Institute are introducing a new science curriculum about Type 2 diabetes that includes a community education component. And kinesiology faculty members continue to facilitate a physical activity program for Flint schoolchildren in partnership with the Crim Fitness Foundation.
The university’s Office of K-12 Outreach, led by Markle, has a proven record of turning around some of Michigan’s lowest achieving schools through coordinated support such as coaching for principals, professional development for school teams and assistance with using data to improve teaching.
MSU was already working under contract to assist schools in Flint identified as “priority” schools by the Michigan Department of Education when the Mott Foundation grant was awarded. With support from the Fellowship of Instructional Leaders, a program of the Office of K-12 Outreach, one of the schools, Neithercut Elementary School, was removed from the state’s priority designation for making significant progress.
Mott has provided financial resources to expand that work and support change throughout the entire district, which is responsible for educating close to 5,000 students.
“During year one of the work with MSU, we were able to implement effective and efficient systems to support teaching and learning in our schools,” said Superintendent Bilal Tawwab. “This year we have more of a laser-like focus on what is occurring in classrooms.
“We are in the business of educating the children of Flint and, as superintendent, it is my vision that FCS is the number one educational asset in Flint. MSU is helping my vision become a reality in a very meaningful way.”
The MSU team provides tailored professional development and services for the FCS central office and every school building. For example, each of the 12 principals has a trained coach from MSU with experience in urban school settings who supports them in leading change.
Durant-Tuuri-Mott Elementary Principal Shelly Umphrey said she was resistant to having a leadership coach at first, but she now feels it’s one of the best experiences of her career.
“It is refreshing to have someone help me look at my current reality with another lens and to help drive my thinking,” she said. “Sometimes we are just too close to the work or too worn down to see clearly … My mentor is truly my lifeline right now and I’m growing as a leader because of the supportive nudges I get each and every week.”
With coaches’ support, the principals have facilitated professional learning communities among teachers in their schools. These teams are focused on using student data to drive strategies for improving how they teach, and to connect their work to initiatives across the district.
Content specialists as well as faculty members from the College of Education have provided on-site professional development in math, science, literacy and social studies.
“These are things they would not have had access to if they were not connected to a college,” said MSU project leader JoAnn Andrees, a former superintendent in Michigan and Connecticut. “We go in as peers and focus on building capacity so that the FCS staff can continue this momentum in the future.”
Among her many duties, Andrees has guided organizational restructuring in FCS. For example, all central office staff members, including secretaries, participate in regular meetings and activities such as going into schools to talk with principals about how they can better support one another.
“We have a good foundation on how to move forward as a district, and as a school,” said Timothy Green, principal of Northwestern High School.
Improving early childhood education is one of the key factors to mitigate the effects of lead exposure faced by families in Flint’s water crisis. MSU specialist Mary Barkley is working closely with Flint school leaders as a wide array of partners come together to create a cohesive system of support and learning for children ages birth to 4.
A major achievement this year is the opening of Cummings Early Childhood Center, which will provide free childcare and preschool services for 180 eligible children plus adult education for their parents in a former elementary school. Plans are also underway to open an Educare school, a unique model operating in other parts of the U.S., toward the goal of ensuring more Flint children are not only ready to succeed in school, but healthy.
Barkley said she’s helping to connect education projects with community-based health resources now offered in Flint, such as those being directed by the MSU pediatrician who exposed the lead problem, Mona Hanna-Attisha.
“It’s not just about the water. It’s about the right to provide high-quality services for families in poverty,” said Barkley, who previously oversaw early childhood programming in Battle Creek. “We have an opportunity to be the model for how early childhood care can be delivered.”