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American Indian, low-income kids often struggle academically, but thrive at this U.P. school

May 20, 2015

We do a lot of stories about what’s not working in education, but today we’re going to flip the script and talk about a school that’s doing really well, especially for students of color and economically disadvantaged students. It’s a rural school called Brimley Elementary in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

I took a trip to the U.P. last week to visit Brimley, a very tiny town on the shores of Lake Superior. Aside from the Bay Mills Indian Community reservation and the area's natural beauty, there's not much to the place aside from a couple bars, a gas station, and a motel. But the residents are very friendly (I was invited to a smelt dinner the first night I arrived), and they celebrate their own: a recent issue of the local paper featured the elementary school's Students of the Month, complete with photos and quotes from teachers.

Needless to say, the kids at the school don’t get a lot of visitors, so when a reporter shows up with a microphone, they’ve got questions like "Where's the radio station?" "Where do you live?" and my favorite, "Why are you here?" It’s a good question. Why am I here? Well, this school has a high population of Native American children and kids from low-income families -- two groups that statistically struggle in school. But here at Brimley they’re doing well; they are way above the state standard on tests and have been for the past several years.

So that’s why I’m here: to figure out how they do it.


Theory #1: GOOD TEACHERS

"It feels really good to have good grades," says Chloe Teeple, a fourth grade student at Brimley. "It feels really good to be super smart." Chloe, who is American Indian and lives on the Bay Mills Indian reservation, has a lot to be proud of. Take 4th grade reading and math scores, for example. She and her American Indian classmates not only outperformed other American Indians in the state, they outperformed white students, too. 

I asked Chloe and her friend, 9-year old Grace Hill, why they think they're doing so well in school. Chloe's theory is that "everyone's accepted for who they are, no matter if they're Irish, Native, African American ... or French." Everyone is treated fairly and equally.

Grace's theory? Good teachers. "I think our teachers are teaching us really, really well." Her friend Chloe agrees. "They're doing a good job. If they weren't teaching us, we wouldn't get that award."

The award Chloe's talking about is from Education Trust, a national non-profit organization that focuses on raising achievements for low-income students and students of color. Brimley Elementary was one of only three schools in the country to receive the organization's Dispelling The Myth award which highlights schools that are making a difference for students typically considered "at-risk" of school failure. (You can see a full list of current and past award winners here.)

Destiny Baragawanth is in 4th grade at Brimley and she lives on the Bay Mills Indian reservation. Some of her cousins are enrolled at the Ojbiwe charter school on the rez and she thought about transferring to that school, but in the end decided against it. "I really like Brimley," she says, "so I picked Brimley."

THEORY #2: PARENT INVOLVEMENT

Cheryl Baragawanth is 65 years old and a member of the Bay Mills Indian tribe. She’s lived in Brimley practically her whole life and went through the Brimley public school system. Her children went to Brimley K-12, and now her grandchildren are there. Baragawanth says her grandkids are treated better by the school than she was fifty years ago.

"Our families are becoming better at speaking up for themselves," says Baragawanth, "so that’s the big reason why our schools of our Native children are doing better."

The school has a parent advisor for Native families, there are also powwows at the school and Ojibwe language classes for the older students. Al Kantola is Brimley's part-time superintendent, and he agrees that parent involvement is pretty good, but says he'd like to see more parent involvement, "especially with some of our lower achieving students."

THEORY #3: MONEY

The school can’t collect property taxes from the Indian reservation in town, so the federal government subsidizes the school using what's called Impact Aid money. This year Brimley got $1 million from the federal government (roughly one-fifth of the school's entire budget).

For those keeping score, that translates into $1,950 extra in funding per student.

Pete Routhier has been principal at Brimley Elementary for the past decade, and he says the Impact Aid money helps "big time" because it "really gives us an extra pot of money" to work with. And they spend that extra pot of money wisely on resources like people and early interventions. Here's a brief list of what the school provides for its students:

  • a resource teacher for special education students
  • a speech and language pathologist
  • a reading recovery specialist for 1st grade students
  • an intervention teacher for 4-6 grade students
  • paraprofessionals in each classroom, grades K-2

The school is also able to keep class sizes small; the class size average is 22 students (though most classrooms I visited had 17 or 18 students tops.)

Theory #4: ASSESSMENTS

There's one more thing teachers are doing at Brimley that seems to contribute to student achievement: they're constantly assessing their students to make sure they’re where they need to be. 

First grade teacher Lannie Castagne does a reading assessment with her kids every month, which she says is "a lot of work ... but it's what's best for the students." Based on the assessments, the bottom 30% of students get a lot of extra help and support. Because teachers are constantly assessing their students, a student who starts the year at the bottom 30% doesn't necessarily stay there. We "keep those groups fluid," says Castange. "We're constantly adjusting the groups."

Teachers also collaborate with other teachers throughout the district to share information like best practices, content and classroom techniques, which Principal Pete Routhier says also helps a lot.

Add that’s the special sauce, as it were. That’s why this small, rural school with a higher than average poverty rate and Native population is doing so well and closing the achievement gap. They have more money in their general fund, and they use it to hire more people: more early interventionists, more paraprofessionals, and more teachers to keep the class size small.

Lannie Castagne firmly believes her students wouldn't be as successful without the extra resources and staff Brimley is able to provide. "They're getting a lot more of exactly what they need," says Castagne.