Stepping out of the box is more than a cliche at Canton Charter Academy -- it’s an act that's strongly encouraged, said Principal Catherine Henkenberns, who gives her teachers room to stretch themselves as educators.
“I want them to feel free to take risks and to really do what they think is going to be best in the classroom,” said Henkenberns, “but to know that even if it did not work, they learned something from that, which will still bring improvement down the road.”
That improvement included a 97.5 percent proficiency rate for 8th grade math on 2010-11 state testing, a score qualifying Canton for a Bridge Magazine Academic State Championship.
While taking risks inside the classroom may not always be easy, it is, at times, necessary.
“We all have a curriculum that we have to fit in by the end of the year,” said Kristy Hagan, middle school math teacher. “Sometimes there is pressure that you have got to fit everything in and sometimes teachers follow that pace because we have to fit curriculum in, and taking a risk is taking the time to slow down and hone in on those areas where you are weak and not be afraid to slow down.”
Canton Charter attributes its success in math, in part, to teacher collaboration. Such collaboration helped the school identify a deficiency through analysis of math data.
“The more the math teachers talked about it, they started to fill in the blanks and said we need to be a little bit cohesive in teaching measurements. So by time the students get to 8thh grade, they have had all of these other skills put into place,” said Hagan.
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. Canton scored best for 8th Grade Math among charters serving a student population with 39 percent or less eligible for free lunches.
In addition to collaboration Canton Charter also credits student tracking as a way to ensure student accountability.
“Students can track every objective. So, maybe at the beginning of the year they had a 0 percent on integers and three months into it they are at 40 percent on integers,” said Hagan. “So the students get excited because they see that they are learning but they also understand what area they need the most help on.”
Ellis West preaches high standards
David Ellis Academy West in Redford earned the Academic State Championship for 8th Grade Math among charters serving student bodies with at least 40 percent eligible for free lunch programs with a proficiency mark of 95.7 percent.
School leaders point to the school’s culture, leadership and high standards of excellence as the foundation of excellence.
“I attribute our success to our community,” said Ticheal Jones, principal, “We believe in high expectations, we believe in a safe and nurturing environment as well as making sure we have the resources available.”
Excellence in math always has been one of the school’s goals, said Jones. “ So we hired a math specialist who is working along with the teachers. We also have math tutors who actually pull out (from class) students who may be having difficulty (in order) to work with them one-on-one.”
In addition, since math is such a broad subject, each year teachers break down the subject matter into components by “continuously taking a look and reflecting and analyzing where we are and making the adjustments as necessary,” to see if there are any learning gaps.
According to Jones, one might discover that “we are strong is this area but weak in another area," said Jones. "Maybe it was multiplication, maybe it was problem-solving skills. Teachers really get down to where strengths and weaknesses are and develop the plans accordingly, so it really is a cycle of improvement.”
In scoring so highly in 8th Grade Math, Ellis resisted a trend that afflicts charters and traditional public schools alike: a drop in proficiency rates between testing in the 4th grade and testing in 8th grade.
While Jones could not speak for other schools' results, she suggested possible factors in the trend: “The first thing I would look at is student attrition. Are you retaining your students or are you constantly getting new students that might not be acclimated to the culture and climate of the school or do they switch schools a lot? If so, they are probably coming in with deficiencies. So you are playing an uphill battle.”
She added that “math is a building skill. So if there are one or two areas that they are lacking and they continue to progress along, the gap of their knowledge gets wider as they move along the grade levels.”
But David Ellis Academy maintains a high retention rate. Jones noted, "Students stay and graduate from here. They know the David Ellis way.”
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.