Set in the country on nearly 70 acres marked by rolling creeks, nature trails and nearby farms is Countryside Academy. This green-themed school near Benton Harbor integrates an environmentally based curriculum into learning. Principal Steve Rigoni said instruction revolves around the environment:
“Students in English class can be reading about the environment or renewable resources, or agriculture in general, so that they realize that there is an application for what they are studying.”
Countryside Academy is one of Bridge Magazine’s Academic Champions for 8th Grade Reading among charter schools, earning a 96 percent reading proficiency on statewide testing for 2010-11. Rigoni attributes the school’s success to a strong dedicated staff, high expectations, a strictly enforced dress code and periodic testing to indicate students’ strengths and weaknesses.
“It just gives us an indication on who is going to need extra help,” said Rigoni. “And we hired a reading interventionist who will take the students with the greatest needs out of class and work with them to bring them up with the rest of the class.”
“We read a lot of science articles,” explained reading specialist Amy Paris, “and oftentimes they are dealing with the environment. My fifth-grade students are reading about the Underground Railroad and we talk about plantations and what might have been on the plantations.”
As part of its "Academic State Championship" coverage, Bridge Magazine used a database to analyze results from all of Michigan's charter schools on eight academic measures, then divided the results into two groups based on the socioeconomic characteristics of their student bodies. Countryside scored best for 8th Grade Reading among charters serving a student population with at least 40 percent eligible for free lunches.
In addition to specialized instruction, English teacher David Staggs requires each student to read daily from a book of their choice.
“We go through a list of books,” said Staggs, “that we have to cover and together we pick which one we want to read.”
And true to the school’s green-themed lessons, some readings are devoted to becoming good stewards of the Earth. “Students need to realize that it is more than just them on this planet,” said Paris. “And what they do affects other people and their daily lives, too.”
Three charters post perfect proficiency
A three-way tie emerged among charters in the other category, with Island City Academy in Eaton Rapids, Woodland School in Traverse City and Honey Creek Community School in Ann Arbor having 100 percent of their eight-graders test proficient in 2010-11.
Woodland School Director Nathan Tarsa said a foundation of good reading skills must begin early:
“We are a K-8 school. Reading is emphasized throughout the day, throughout the curriculum from kindergarten on. We have made it a focus that reading is a part of everyday, and that means making time for students to have a chance to read.”
Despite the high score, Tarsa said Woodland places little emphasis on the state's MEAP exam because it does not take different learning stages into consideration.
“I may have a young person who reads at a very high level and another that reads at his level or below. But over time, if we are doing what we should be doing, those students generally catch up,” said Tarsa. “You need to look beyond just academics. You need to measure students individually and not put everyone in a lump and say this school is doing well or this school is not doing well… it’s not fair to anybody.”
Honey Creek Executive Director Al Waters credits differential instruction to meeting the needs of each child in school.
“We are fond of saying ‘fair isn’t everybody getting the same thing, but fair is getting what he or she needs," he explained. "Everybody has different gifts in this world and some might look at a disability as a challenge, but we look for the strengths in a particular student and we try and build those strengths.”
Located south of Lansing in Eaton Rapids, Island City Academy attributes its success to early intervention and a veteran faculty.
“We have tremendous teaching staff,” said Administrator Thomas Ackerson. “We have longevity in staff. The (MEAP) scores are directly coming from our 7th grade teacher who has been at the school for 11 years now. Our longevity, as far as charter schools go, is quite high, our turnover is quite low. Our staff is willing to work with the reading specialist to make sure that even those kids who are not even one year behind are still getting some added tools.”
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.