It’s a crisp autumn Friday night in Michigan. Children jostle at a ticket booth, waiting impatiently for the chance to claim a spot in the bleachers. A father buys a hot dog, while a mother carries a stadium blanket and a camera. A high school marching band finishes its pre-game show and high-steps off the field. Cheerleaders waive pom-pons and the crowd roars as the teams run onto the field and …
Let’s stop the image right there.
What if the teams being cheered by the crowd weren’t football players, or athletes of any kind? What if the hometown heroes were more comfortable with spiral notebooks than spiral passes?
Let’s imagine a parallel universe, one where academic achievement is honored and applauded like sports; one where the Big Man on Campus is the Smartest Man on Campus; one where old men sit at a diner remembering the glory days of the town’s state champion 8th grade science team.
Busloads of fans will head to Ford Field in Detroit next week for the state high school football championships. Those teams deserve every fervent cheer and glowing newspaper article they get. But if Michigan is going to turn its economy around, it’s not going to be on the football field -- it’s going to be in the classroom.
That’s why Bridge Magazine began the State Academic Championship two weeks ago, with 213 school districts from the four corners of Michigan making the playoffs. Today, we unveil the winners.
Selecting the champs
To crown "Academic State Champions," Bridge Magazine used the following techniques:
* For rankings in 8th grade math, science and reading and 4th grade math, reading and writing, Bridge compared the percentage of students scoring at or above proficiency standards on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) from the 2010-11 school year.
* For college readiness rankings, Bridge compared the percentage of juniors earning proficient scores in the four academic categories of the ACT in 2010-11 school year; Students needed to earn proficient scores in English, math, science and reading to be considered college-ready.
* For graduation rankings, Bridge compared the four-year graduation rates (the percent of freshmen who graduate in four years) for 2010, the most recent year available.
Bridge placed school districts in division by community type and socioeconomic status.
Districts were divided into city, suburban and town/rural by designations made by the National Center for Educational Statistics. Schools were further split by percentage of free lunch, a commonly used indicator of poverty level. Schools were divided as follows:
Below 20 percent free lunch, 20 percent-40 percent free lunch and above 40 percent free lunch. Because there were only three city school districts with below 20 percent free lunch, those schools were included in the affluent suburban division.
The divisions are:
Division 1: City school districts with 20 percent-40 percent free lunch.
Division 2: City school districts with over 40 percent free lunch.
Division 3: City and suburban districts with under 20 percent free lunch.
Division 4: Suburban districts with 20 percent-40 percent free lunch.
Division 5: Suburban districts with over 40 percent free lunch.
Division 6: Rural/town districts with under 20 percent free lunch.
Division 7: Rural/town districts with 20 percent-40 percent free lunch.
Division 8: rural/town districts with over 40 percent free lunch.
Editor's note: Detroit Public Schools, because of its size, did not have a true peer group and was left out of the championships. Bridge will hold a separate championship for schools within Detroit at a later date.
Using a database created by Public Sector Consultants and the Citizens Research Council, Bridge Magazine is naming state champions in eight academic categories: College readiness (ACT proficiency); graduation rate, 8th grade math, 8th grade science, 8th grade reading, 4th grade math, 4th grade reading and 4th grade writing.
And just like in high school football, we’ve split the state’s schools into eight divisions, based on community type and socioeconomic status. (See our methodology at right.)
Those champions range from expected academic powerhouses such as Bloomfield Hills in Metro Detroit and Forest Hills in Grand Rapids, to poor, rural schools in the Upper Peninsula.
Some of the champions will surprise you. Some will inspire you. All deserve praise, not only under the Friday-night lights, but all week long.
Kicking butt on the Keweenaw
Houghton High School, on the Keweenaw Peninsula in the U.P. doesn’t have much of a football program. The team one won game this year, which is pretty much the norm, according to Principal Kass Simila.
"We just hope to score,” Simila joked.
At Houghton, the high school of Houghton-Portage Township Schools, the hallway heroes aren't gridiron goliaths, but the National Merit Scholars. “We have a couple this year,” Simila said. “One year we had five or six.”
Houghton-Portage is the College Readiness State Academic Champion for Division 6. which covers affluent rural schools.
Among juniors taking the ACT in fall 2010, 51 percent scored at or above proficient levels in English (a score of 18), math (22), science (24) and reading (21). The ACT considers students who are proficient in all categories to be “college ready,” with a good chance of success in college.
With 51 percent of its students scoring at college readiness levels (the state average is 19 percent), Houghton-Portage not only won its division, but had the second highest scores in the state. The overall champion was Bloomfield Hills, with 57 percent of its juniors rated as college-ready.
Houghton-Portage also is Academic State Champion of 8th Grade Math and 8th Grade Science in Division 6.
"My attitude as principal is, sports is supposed to be about fun, team-building and character-building. But winning? We don’t care," Simila explained. Instead, "we kick butt on the ACT."
Houghton benefits from its location down the street from Michigan Tech, a bastion of geekdom near the shores of Lake Superior. High school students often split their class time between the high school and the college.
The district’s studious reputation makes it a magnet for school-of-choice students looking for an academic leg up. “Thirty percent of our kids are school of choice,” Simila said. “We’re all about academics,” she added. “We don’t mess around with some of the stuff most high schools do. There are no dances, no prom. If you’re not a smart student, you don’t feel comfortable here.
Simila noted, “We have high expectations."
Bloomfield Hills spares no effort
The same can be said of Bloomfield Hills Schools, the overall State Champion of College Readiness and Division 3 champ of 8th Grade Reading.
While state records indicate that 59 percent of juniors last year were deemed college-ready by their ACT scores, the figure may be misleading. InternationalAcademy, which draws about 150 high-performing students from across the region, is considered part of Bloomfield Hills Schools in state statistics. While Bloomfield Hills has the biggest share of students at the school, top-notch students from many other districts also attend International Academy.
Located in one of the wealthiest suburbs in the state, Bloomfield Hills Schools has built-in advantages that other districts don’t. The district, as a "Section 20j" school, has received funding per student than the state average, and benefits from a community where parents with college degrees are the norm.
“Our community has always really valued college readiness and college education,” said Superintendent Rob Glass. “It becomes a matter of getting into the best schools and having multiple options as a goal, rather than will I go to college.” The district’s high schools, Andover and Lahser, offer 27 Advanced Placement courses and eight foreign languages, including Arabic and Japanese.
“The culture you develop over time, it breeds its own success,” Glass said. “The important thing is to keep it going.”
The district has worked to maintain small class sizes, and fosters a culture of individualized learning.
“The push for achievement (on standardized tests) … loses sight of the joy of learning in the larger society,” Glass said. “We’re trying to run counter to that. Every student should have a customized experience. They need to connect. We’re not as worried about test scores, frankly, as we are having a rich, deep learning experience. Our parents expect students to come home loving what they’re doing."
Glass added, "A lot of people look at education and say the sky is falling. I think we’re doing a pretty good job.”
College Readiness Champs
Academic State Champions in College Readiness by division are:
Ann Arbor Public Schools, Division 1
Holland Public Schools, Division 2
Bloomfield Hills Schools, Division 3
Marysville Public Schools, Division 4
Comstock Public Schools, Division 5
Houghton-Portage Township Schools, Division 6
Les Cheneaux Community Schools, Division 7
Northport Public Schools, Division 8