In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Brimley is the kind of small town where the students of the month in the elementary school get full-page write-ups in the local newspaper.
There’s an Indian reservation just up the road, a couple bars, a gas station, a motel and that’s about it.
Brimley Elementary serves two groups that often struggle academically. Of the 300 students, more than half are Native American. Many come from low-income families.
You might be thinking at this point that this story is like so many of the education stories out there, about what’s just not working in schools. But Brimley Elementary is different.
At this school, American Indian students are outperforming other Natives in the state. The school as a whole performs above the statewide average for all schools, and on some tests, the low-income students are performing at the same level as kids from wealthier families.
So, how does Brimley do it? There are several theories out there. Here are a couple from some of the student themselves:
“Well, everyone’s accepted here for who they are, no matter if they’re Irish, Native, African American or just French,” says 9-year-old Chloe, who just finished fourth grade. She lives on the nearby reservation and her full Native American name is Chloe Biidaasige-Kwe Teeple.
She’s a member of the Bay Mills Indian Community and so is her good friend, Grace, who has her own hypothesis: “I think our teachers are teaching us really, really well.”
Then there’s another big theory: money.
Pete Routhier, Brimley’s principal, says the school can’t collect property taxes from the reservation, so the federal government subsidizes the school. It’s called Impact Aid, and in the year that just wrapped up, Brimley Elementary got $1 million. That translated into about $2,000 in extra funding per student.
“So that does help, big time. That really gives us an extra pot of money,” says Routhier. He adds that the school uses that pot for things like hiring more staff and early interventions for struggling students. There’s a resource teacher for special education and a speech and language pathologist.
First-graders who are having a tough time with reading and writing get one-on-one time with a specialist. There’s an intervention teacher for kids in fourth, fifth and sixth grades — they mostly focus on math. There are teachers’ aids to help out in all the kindergarten, first- and second-grade classrooms. And class sizes are small, averaging 22 kids.
There’s one more thing. The teachers are constantly assessing their students to make sure they’re where they need to be.
First-grade teacher Lannie Castagne does a reading assessment with her kids every month. “Is it a lot of work? Yes, it’s a lot of work. I’m here a lot of nights until six o’clock, but it’s what’s best for the students,” she says.
And based on the assessments, the bottom one-third of students get a lot of extra help and support.
So that’s what Brimley Elementary is doing differently — nothing outlandish or tech-heavy. It hasn’t reinvented the wheel. The school has more money in its general fund, and uses it to hire more people: more specialists and more teachers to keep the class sizes small.
Of course, some students, like Grace and Chloe, have their own wish list for how they’d like to use that money. “I would want to change some of the lunches. Some of the lunches aren’t that really yummy,” says Grace.
Chloe says that’s right: “Well there’s not really much to change, the school is good just by itself, but yeah, I agree with Grace, not all the lunches are yummy.”