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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Reading champs point to early prep

Now in its 16th year, Island City Academy was founded as an independent charter school in Eaton Rapids, a small town about 20 miles south of Lansing. Thomas Ackerson, its principal, said the school was born to institute a back-to-basics program that ran counter to the educational trends of the time.

“The original idea was anti-whole language, back to phonics,” he said. “We still use it in the lower elementary grades.”

The back-to-basics approach has given Island City Academy a long run of outstanding reading scores on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program. Last year’s score of 100 percent at or above proficiency ties it with Hillsdale Preparatory School, Hillsdale; New Bedford Academy, Lambertville; and Martin Luther King Jr. Education Center Academy, Detroit. These schools serve a student population below 40 percent free lunch.

For schools with more economically disadvantaged students, Ross-Hill Academy in Detroit also achieved a 100 percent score.

Michigan’s statewide average proficiency among public schools is 84 percent.

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: 0 percent to 39 percent eligible for free lunches and 40 percent or more eligible for free lunches.

The Island City approach isn’t all technique and philosophy, Ackerson added. The staff enjoys an unusual longevity, and a reading specialist keeps tabs on every student’s progress.

“This isn’t the first year we’ve hit 100,” the principal said. “We’re typically in the 95 percent range and above.”

But the 4th-grade test, given early in the year, typically represents students who’ve been in the school since kindergarten, what Ackerson calls “our homegrowns.”

Elsewhere among Michigan’s charter-school champs, similar approaches yielded similar success. At Hillsdale Preparatory School, a board “big on traditional education” guides the school in the same direction of phonics and attack skills recognizable by the grandparents of today’s students. Still, Headmaster Stephen Philipp said, “Math is one of those things you’ll learn with money. But reading can be a challenge.”

New Bedford Academy uses an ability-based instruction approach, said Principal Greg Sauter, with small groups at individual achievement levels, rather than large classes.

“Working at their ability level helps them to succeed and do better,” he said. “And we have outstanding teachers.”

Reading is essentially a process of cracking a code, he said, with specific skills, including phonics, which empower younger children to sound out words and divine meaning.

“Starting early with the fundamentals is what we strive for,” Sauter said.

At Ross-Hill Academy, Principal Phyllis Ross (no connection to the school’s name) swears by team-teaching, keeping teachers in place until after the MEAP, lots of test preparation, parental involvement and a tried-and-true method for getting results from anyone: Rewards.

“If they get a 1 or 2 (meeting or exceeding standards), they get to go to Cedar Point,” she said. “And we have other incentives. We take them to a baseball game. It’s important. It motivates them.”

Nancy Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.

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