LAS Board of Education Recap: Murray Lake Elementary Literacy Presentation

The Lowell Area Schools Board of Education met this past Monday evening for their regularly scheduled monthly meeting. Board member Brian Krajewski was absent, but all other board members were present for the meeting.

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Student Council Report

Student Council President Antonio Casarez reported that although the homecoming parade was rained out and the field too muddy and wet for the court to walk on, the homecoming dance was still a success with a great turnout.

Casarez congratulated the cast of “Trap,” the high school’s fall play, and said “…to be able to see the payoff of all that hard work was really fun to watch.”

Murray Lake Elementary Presentation

Murray Lake Elementary Principal Molly Burnett and Intervention Coordinator/District Literacy Coach Kyndera Lee were at the meeting to present information about the school’s reading instruction.

Burnett said that, as a whole, Murray Lake uses reading research to always look for the best and most efficient way for students to learn to read. The science behind reading research considers components such as phonics, comprehension, vocabulary, fluency and “explicit systematic instruction.”

Lee explained that explicit systematic instruction just means that teachers are careful to explicitly teach every little step of reading along the way. Plus, concepts that the students learn build upon one another. Burnett added that by systematic, they mean “…teaching in an order that makes sense and is logical so that kids can build on that.”

This way of teaching began in reading intervention, with students who struggled with reading, and eventually found its way to all students across the district. Staff have found it’s something that works well for all kids learning to read.

Lee added that the change at Murray Lake to teach with this specific system began with a screening of a documentary called “The Truth About Reading” at a local movie theater. The event was hosted by Kent ISD and many principals, special ed teachers and other educators from across Kent County attended. There, they were able to meet with a few of the people featured in the documentary for questions after the viewing. Lee said that the film took a close look at some of the systematic issues with literacy in the US. Burnett encouraged the board and audience to see the documentary, saying it’s “…very, very interesting. It will open your eyes.”

Starting in kindergarten and first grade, students begin to read by learning phonological awareness, which is hearing the sounds letters and words make. To build upon this, students then learn phonics, which is not only hearing the sounds of the letters but physically looking at them while hearing the sounds. Lee said that if students learn four letters, they can begin to form and read words. Once they know 11 letters, they can begin to read simple sentences. In this way, the students begin to read early using what they know instead of waiting until they finish learning the alphabet.

To implement these lessons but also make it fun, Lee said that Murray Lake educators utilize word and letter-based games. She added, “…it’s just practicing through motivating, engaging…it gives the kids choices.”

Lee expanded on reading intervention, saying that kids are identified as needing extra help through testing or teacher observation. When students take part in intervention, they’re practicing concepts that are already being taught in class but in small groups and with one on one help. Once students are caught up, they can stop attending intervention unless and until they need extra help in the future. Each elementary school in the district has at least two reading interventionists on staff, and roughly 25-30% of all students at each school utilize reading intervention at some point.

Lee ended by saying that as an interventionist, she is constantly learning new things. She shared a Maya Angelou quote, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, you do better.” Lee added that, “As we learn things, we change, we adapt…we’ll just continue to improve and reflect.”

Action Items

The board unanimously approved the summer tax resolution for 2024, which is the annual collection of taxes from area municipalities as approved by voters.

They also voted to authorize architectural firm TowerPinkster and construction company Owen-Ames-Kimball Co. to submit a preliminary qualification application to the Michigan Department of Treasury for a May 2024 bond proposal that will fund repairs and remodeling of district facilities. Superintendent Nate Fowler said that following the three recent community forums that collected opinions and ideas from the community about the proposed improvement projects, a survey will also be sent out to gather additional input, “…to give even more information to the board as we continue to consider this project.”

The board accepted a gift of $500 from Troy Allen of Charles Schwab on behalf of the district’s fusion rock orchestra.

The purchase of eight new food service ovens was approved by the board. The ovens, totaling roughly $93,000, will be installed in kitchens across the district.

Human Resources Update

The district recently added another full-time bus driver who started his new route Monday. Another bus driver is currently being trained, and LAS is still attempting to recruit more drivers.

Professional development trainings have been taking place all trimester, and Director of Human Resources Dustin Cichocki explained that teachers are then eligible for SCECHs (State Continuing Education Clock Hours), which allow teachers to recertify every five years without having to go back to school. Typically 30 or more SCHECHs are made available to teachers each year.

District nurses have been training MERC (medical emergency response) teams in Narcan/Naloxone training, to be used for reversing opiate overdose.

CPI (crisis prevention intervention) training has also been happening in the district. CPI includes deescalation strategies and nonviolent crisis prevention.

Cichocki ended his report by saying that he wanted to acknowledge high school English teacher Jeff Larsen, present in the audience, to congratulate him on 30 years of teaching for the district. He asked that those present fix him a round of applause, and the audience obliged.

Budget Update

The fiscal year 2023 financial data has been submitted to the state, and state auditors will attend the next Board of Education work session meeting to talk with the board about results of the district’s recent audit.

Curriculum Update

Director of Curriculum Dan VanderMeulen thanked Burnett and Lee for their presentation about reading instruction at Murray Lake and reiterated to the audience that they should watch the documentary about reading mentioned in the presentation.

VanderMeulen said that, as a district, the goal is for 100% of students to be proficient readers. He said that LAS has strong data in reading but also “room to improve.” He said that last year, 80% of LAS eighth grade students and 83% of twelfth graders met benchmark standards for the PSAT in reading.

Lastly, VanderMeulen wanted the community to be aware of the upcoming LAS concert at Impact Church on Friday, November 17, at 7 pm. The event will feature the Lowell high school band, choir and orchestra together in one concert.

Public Comment

Retired teacher Kim Lum said she was there to speak about the importance of relationships, and more specifically, the relationship of teachers with their students. She said that teachers often build relationships with their students by going above and beyond for them: attending their sporting events or performances, making food for a student’s family in need, buying students shoes or having healthy snacks in their classroom.

Lum said “…we don’t tell our principals, we don’t tell anybody else that we’ve done it, we just reach out and care. Kids need us to show that we care. Parents need us to show that we care.” Lum said that she appreciated that LAS staff and board members, “…are doing things for others beyond their job” and added, “…we need to keep doing that. It makes a difference- for our hearts and theirs.”

Superintendent’s Report

Fowler apologized for the lack of streaming video or audio at Monday’s meeting. He said that the technical difficulties should be fixed for the December meeting.

Fowler said he wanted to recognize Veterans Day, and, “…express gratitude to members of our staff who’ve served in our armed forces, as well as recognizing LAS graduates who’ve gone on to serve and defend our country as members of the armed forces…just appreciation to everybody who has served our country in that capacity.”

Fowler remarked that, recently, the Michigan Association of School Librarians recognized Laurie Kuna as school board member of the year and Christine Beachler as district library director of the year. He congratulated Kuna and Beachler on the award and recognition.

Fowler said that the final inspections for the middle school renovations are now complete. He added that there were a few finishing touches that needed to be done, including some interior painting and landscaping projects.

Fowler congratulated the girls’ golf team and cross-country runner Claire O’Boyle for qualifying for state finals. He also recognized the equestrian team for being the reserve champion for the district.

LAS continues to move forward with the River Cities Alliance conference realignment for next year, planning schedules and searching out officials for upcoming games.

Board Comments

Secretary Pat Nugent, who also serves on the Lowell Education Foundation’s board of directors, said that last month, the LEF gave out their annual teacher grants. There were 19 grants in amounts totaling over $26,000 given to teachers across the district for items like science equipment, hands-on STEM materials and reading and literacy materials. He thanked the community for their support of LEF.

Board Member Jessica Curtis thanked Burnett and Lee for their presentation, saying, “…thank you for always wanting to make our students better readers.”

Board Member Jen Dougherty commented that she had attended the high school’s fall play, “Trap,” and that it was a wonderful performance. She thanked the bus garage staff and drivers for training new drivers and getting them ready to drive for the district. To Burnett and Lee, she said, “Molly and Kyndera, it’s really easy to stick with what you’ve always done, it’s hard to do the hard work to continuously improve and look at data and maybe look at the things you were doing that weren’t the most effective, so I really appreciate that you’re constantly striving to improve reading for our kids.”

Board Member Jared Blough echoed the thanks to Burnett and Lee.

Board Member Tom Kaywood thanked Casarez for another student council report that garnered a round of applause from the audience.

Speaking of the LEF, Kuna said that she thought the board and LAS staff didn’t always realize the support available to them in this district. While attending the Michigan Association of School Board’s recent conference, Kuna learned that, statistically, boards that belong to state and national organizations that support education have districts where students outperform students at schools without those supports. Kuna added congratulations to Larsen on 30 years of teaching.

The meeting was adjourned at 8:09 pm. The next school board meeting will be a work session that the public is always welcome to attend and will take place Monday, November 27, at 6 pm in the administration building.

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