Berrien County school districts collaborate to support instruction, student achievement

Published 4:00 pm Wednesday, August 30, 2023

BERRIEN COUNTY — Berrien County public school districts are sharpening their focus on academic achievement by enhancing the instructional skills of educators. 

This summer, after analyzing multi-year countywide student success and trend data, Berrien County superintendents identified three areas where they felt collaboration and additional educator training could maximize student outcomes – literacy, mathematics and student/staff wellbeing. Based on those areas, the superintendents developed three countywide goals, each focusing on professional development: 

  1. We will build educator capacity around common literacy standards, the Science of Reading, and delivery of explicit foundational skills and strategies.
  2. We will build educator capacity around common math standards, the 8 Mathematical Practices, and delivery of explicit foundational skills and strategies.
  3. We will build educator capacity around fostering belonging and engagement, where ALL are connected and accepted.

“Berrien County’s educators are making incredible progress,” said Eric Hoppstock, Berrien RESA Superintendent. “They are making great strides with students everyday, however, there is always room to grow. After looking at our countywide data, area school leaders recognized pockets of tremendous success. The question is, ‘How do we capture what is working well in those areas to ensure that every student in Berrien County is able to enjoy the same results?’” 

To do this, area schools leaders are strengthening their commitment to their partnership so that all Berrien County educators are better equipped to help students learn.

“While area schools have always had a spirit of collaboration, we have never established specific educator-focused goals aimed at improving student outcomes collectively,” said Ann Cluff, Superintendent of Eau Claire Public Schools. “For the first time ever, we are coming together to share ideas and best practices using the methods outlined in our new countywide goals, allowing us to revamp how educators provide instruction in our classrooms.”

The instructional methods that are at the core of the three countywide goals have been proven to increase student achievement and success. According to the Reading League, the Science of Reading is a vast, interdisciplinary body of scientifically-based research about reading and issues related to reading and writing. This research has been conducted over the last 5 decades across the world, and it is derived from thousands of studies conducted in multiple languages. 

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics developed the 8 Mathematical Practices to help connect research with instruction. The practices outline specific, research-based teaching processes that are essential for a high-quality mathematics education for each and every student and are combined with core principles to build a successful mathematics program at all levels.

Schools will also be working to ensure student and staff wellbeing through a series of resources offered through Berrien RESA and other community agencies aimed at helping everyone in the school environment feel welcome and connected.

District leaders believe that by achieving these three goals, they will be able to catapult student success – regardless of the obstacles students may be facing. 

“As educators, it is our responsibility to provide academic support to every student who enters our buildings regardless of their abilities, past experiences, or other barriers that often get in the way of academic development,” said Dave Ehlers, Superintendent of Coloma Community Schools.  “What we can control is the quality of instruction that each child receives in our schools. As superintendents, we asked ourselves, ‘Why not work together as a county and make deliberate decisions regarding how we teach our students to learn so that collectively, we are paving the way for every child in our county to thrive?’”

Ehlers explained that this is not about removing local control or autonomy. Every district will continue to deliver curricula of their choosing, as approved by their boards of education. This collaborative effort is about supporting teaching staff so they are prepared to meet students as they are and apply the best instructional practices available so that they can learn how to read, understand foundational math skills and feel a sense of belonging in their school environment.

After developing the three goals, the superintendents (along with their instructional leaders) met again in early August to make commitments as school districts as to how they will ensure these goals are not just words on a paper, but actionable objectives that will become part of their everyday work. The superintendents promise to share best practices, collectively solve problems and include goal-focused discussion in their monthly meetings.

“The superintendents have agreed to an open door policy,” said Patricia Robinson, Superintendent of Buchanan Community Schools. “What is learned in Buchanan will be shared with others and what others are doing regarding these goals will be shared with Buchanan. If I am working with my staff on literacy skill development, it is my responsibility to provide insight on both our successes and bumps in the road with my neighboring districts. The goal of this effort is for every student to be successful, no matter where they attend school.”

By focusing on quality instruction, school districts are changing their approach to the actual act of teaching.

“Our approach to this work as a county is really innovative,” said Dr. Kelvin Butts, Superintendent of Benton Harbor Area Schools. “It is exciting for families to know that everyone in Berrien County is working in unison toward these goals – supporting kids beyond district lines. Could you imagine an entire county where every child could read? Or, can you imagine a county where every student mastered foundational math skills and felt a sense of belonging in their schools? It would be incredible and would set every student up for success.”

It is anticipated that the results of this collaborative effort will have a significant impact on student success, with the aim that all children will be performing at or better than grade-level expectations. Berrien RESA and Berrien County school districts will be working together over the next few years to support the three goals. Data checks will be frequent with progress reports published on a regular basis.