When Mattawan Middle School won a prestigious award last fall, it wasn’t for a new program or a single employee. The School of Distinction award bestowed on the west Michigan school recognized a building-wide team-based commitment to students built over two decades.
This week Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II visited Mattawan Middle in Van Buren County to learn how the school became one of only 11 middle schools nationwide to be honored by the Association for Middle Level Education in 2023.
“I’m just incredibly proud of everyone here,” Gilchrist said in remarks to district students, leaders and staff. “You’re presented with an award because you’ve already done the work, so every education professional who works in every capacity here in this school has made it an amazing environment.”
Karrie Smith, president of the Mattawan Education Association, invited Gilchrist on the tour, which also included MEA President Chandra Madafferi. A 24-year math teacher, Smith has worked at the middle school for 18 years and wanted to call attention to the collaborative model that creates staff cohesion and student success.
“Our administrative team has been together for 17 years, which is unheard of, and our building on the whole sees very little turnover from year to year because people love working here,” Smith said.
Gilchrist and Madafferi were met by student greeters and led by student guides in a tour of several classrooms of MEA member educators teaching science, math, social studies and Strides English language arts for special education students (where Gilchrist was served a cup of hot chocolate).
At every turn, Gilchrist asked students what they loved about their learning and their teachers.
He got answers back that demonstrated the powerful personal relationships that educators develop with students: She makes it fun to learn. I like learning life skills such as teamwork and problem-solving, not just science. She’s always moving around the room, looking for people to help.
“Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and I care very deeply about education,” Gilchrist said. “We want to make sure that every student, every family, every household, every community is deeply supported with everything they need to be successful. That starts with an amazing education, and in order for an amazing education to be possible we have to take care of education professionals.”
Principal Chip Schuman told Gilchrist the educators at Mattawan Middle work very deliberately to create a sense of family with a culture of attention to individual students and their needs. For that reason the award reflects the work of “a whole community of people,” he said.
“What a huge honor this is to have you here and to talk about middle-level education,” Schuman said. “This is something that we take very seriously, because we want to make sure we provide a developmentally appropriate education for kids in the middle.”
The school day’s design prioritizes collaboration across various teams organized to support students, from subject-matter teams planning lessons and common assessments to cross-curricular grade-level teams planning and problem-solving day-to-day issues, said Smith, the local union president.
“The schedule is organized to give teams common planning time, so we can stay focused on doing what is best for the students we have in front of us – mentally, developmentally, personally, academically,” Smith said. “We recognize that middle-level kids are different from elementary and high school.”
The school’s staff includes counselors, a psychologist and social worker, plus student engagement specialists with programming that includes the Capturing Kids Hearts approach, peer mentoring, robotics for all students, and a sensory space for students known as the Den.
Every staff member sees supporting students as their job over and above official job duties or content they teach, Smith said.
“You could ask any student in this school to name an adult beyond the counselors that is someone they can go to if they have a problem or a need, and every one could name a person, no problem. Every student has someone they trust to be a mentor or advocate if they’re having a bad day.”
Gilchrist said the school is a wonderful example of why he and the governor work hard every day to find ways to open the doors of opportunity even wider for students by supporting educators and public schools from pre-K to colleges and universities.
“One of our most important priories as leaders is to show education professionals that they matter to us in Michigan, that they are critical to the state’s present and future,” Gilchrist said.