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Challenge accepted: Detroit students soar to titles

Bates Academy and Davison Elementary-Middle are just two of approximately 90 Detroit Public Schools campuses that serve children in elementary and middle grades. These two campuses, though, accounted for victories in five of six available categories in Bridge Magazine's Academic City Championships.

Bates Academy scored highest in the 2010-11 school year in 8th Grade Science, 8th Grade Math and 4th Grade Reading. Davison won honors in 4th Grade Reading and 4th Grade Math. And in each of the five categories, the school's students scored in excess -- sometimes well in excess -- of the statewide average proficiency. At Bates, for example, 99 percent of its eighth-graders were deemed proficient in the science portion of the state MEAP exam, compared to the statewide average of 78 percent. Bates' fourth-graders racked up an even bigger margin on the writing exam, posting an 86 percent proficient mark, compared to 47 percent statewide. (Bates students are well-versed in the stakes of testing -- admission to the school requires an entrance examination.)

Kimberly Finley has been on the frontline as Bates' middle school science teacher for the past five years. She says her goals have been to make sure her students explore, learn and become inspired.

“I didn’t do anything,” said Finley, when told of the Bridge awards. “I show up and teach to the best of my abilities. I don’t test, my children do. So if the accolades go to anyone, they go to the children.”

Fresh-faced 13-year-old Coda Boyce is one of Finley’s science students. She just finished presenting her Science Fair Project on the “Stroop Effect,” a phenomenon that shows how the brain works when presented with conflicting problems.

“It’s how well you can read the color of the word and not the word itself,” said Coda. “It is really made to confuse and get the brain to think.”

Finley not only teaches her students to understand important concepts and principles, such as the one demonstrated by Coda, but she also makes sure the work is presented in a current and interesting way. Not everything has to be straight out the book, said Finley, for a student to learn.

Finley’s teaching style helped make Bates Academy Academic Champs in 8th Grade Science.  Similar dedication helped make Bates Academy reach top city honors in 8th Grade Math and 4th Grade Reading.

Christopher Holstein, Bates' eighth-grade math teacher, has taught at the school for 30 years. In addition to his 8th grade math class, where students are actually taught ninth-grade math skills, he teaches “Academic Games,” in which schools compete against each other on Saturdays. As many as 60 students pile into his classroom at lunchtime to practice, for the simple reason "they like it," he said.

“Some people say that I live and breathe math -- and I do, because I know it is competitive out there and I want my students to be the best and the only way to do that is to work with them, and push them and sometimes make them do things they don’t want to do, Holstein said.

Davison uses real life to score really well

South and east of Bates, Davison Elementary-Middle School posted fine marks of its own.

Though almost all of its students receive free federal lunch aid -- a key indicator of family challenges -- Davison scored at 94 percent proficient in 4th Grade Reading and 98.9 percent proficient in 4th Grade Math, top marks for Detroit Public Schools. Unlike other high-performing Detroit schools, Davison does not have entrance exams or other selection processes. It's a neighborhood school serving the children in the immediate area.

Principal Dianne Holland dispels the prevailing notion that low income means poor academics.

“We believe that all kids can learn,” said Holland. “So when you have someone not achieving at the level you feel like they should be then we got to figure out what we need to do here.”

Holland credits the implementation of MicroSociety, Inc., a program that brings real-life living into the classroom, for boosting Davison. Students create and run a real business, which helps put math and reading skills into practice.

“By being able to run and operate a business,” said Holland, “you really have to be able to do math and reading. You have to write a business plan.  In addition, you have to keep payroll, you have to make your bank loan payments, and you have to operate in society. So in order to do that, your math skills have to be together.”

The winners

8th Grade Science

Bates Academy -- 99 percent proficient.

(Statewide average is 78 percent.)

8th Grade Reading

Ludington Magnet Middle School -- 89.5 percent proficient

(Statewide average is 82 percent.)

8th Grade Math

Bates Academy -- 98 percent proficient.

(Statewide average is 78 percent.)

4th Grade Writing

Bates Academy -- 86 percent proficient.

(Statewide average is 47 percent.)

4th Grade Reading

Davison Elementary-Middle School -- 94.3 percent proficient.

(Statewide average is 84 percent.)

4th Grade Math

Davison Elementary-Middle School -- 98.9 percent proficient.

(Statewide average is 92 percent.)

Note: All results reflect testing for 2010-11 school year.

Dana Hollowell is the first holder of the Center for Michigan’s student fellowship. An award-winning journalist, she has experience in the broadcast and print media. Hollowell grew up in the Detroit metropolitan area.

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