Priest Elementary-Middle School — “School of the Week” — Putting together the puzzle one piece at a time.

Alia Yaish’s third-grade bilingual class is noisy. Very noisy.

And that’s just the way it’s supposed to be.

During a recent lesson on elapsed time, Yaish asked her students to calculate how much time has passed from when a person goes to sleep on a Saturday until they wake the following Sunday. Before the students have a chance to shoot their hands in the air, she challenges the entire class to work in their individual groups to discuss their possible answers.

In a matter of seconds, the children, whose desks are arranged in blocks of four, burst into a flurry of activity in their groups. Their chairs swing around, they reach across the table to dissect the problem, their voices growing louder and louder to overcome a symphony of competing answers, creating a fluid harmony of cooperative learning in the colorfully-decorated room.

As they work, Yaish calls out, “It’s ok to disagree. But you must prove it to each other.”

And when she finally selects a group who, promptly and after serious debate, delivers their response, Yaish affirms the answer is correct, and the whole class stops to sing in unison: “That’s the way, uh huh, uh huh, I like it…”

Yaish’s style of teaching is not in isolation. Indeed, every room in Priest is carefully designed to engage each student and ensure every child succeeds to the best of his or her ability. This is no easy feat in a school like Priest, which is enormously diverse and where many classes have students who come to school speaking no English.

But that’s part of Priest’s charm and expertise, as well as the school’s mission. As Principal Lisa Billops puts it: “We are truly Detroit’s gem of multiculturalism.  We have Hispanic students that are not just from Mexico, but Guatemala, El Salvador, Puerto Rico and other places.  We have Arabic students primarily from Yemen, as well as African-American and Romanian students. Not only is our student body culturally diverse, but we have a variety of ethnicities in our staff.”

Priest’s teachers, staff, parents, students, volunteers and robust community partners, like the Chadsey Condon Community Organization, Communities in Schools and ACCESS, all work together to take the many cultures, ethnicities and differences and blend them into one unified school mission. That mission is to develop students’ social and academic skills by providing hands-on learning experiences that spur high achievement and to help students become life-long learners in a global society.

“One of the things we do as a staff is we learn about the different cultures of the population and we integrate that knowledge into the lessons,” said Teacher Denerzard Thompson. “And we have a staff that works together. Our staff is diverse, as well, and we learn from each other.”

Billops, in large part, credits the school’s new “Success For All” teaching model as helping to meld her melting pot into a successful learning environment.

Success For All is a “whole-school improvement model” that uses five essential strategies:

1) Leadership for Continuous Improvement, where school leaders and teachers collaborate to set goals, measure progress, and celebrate success. 2) Schoolwide Support and Intervention Tools; 3) Powerful Instruction, including rich discussion and motivation challenges to engage students; 4) Professional Development and Coaching, and 5) Research.

Just like in Ms. Yaish’s class, the 950 students across Priest Elementary-Middle School are tested across grade levels and grouped by abilities, regardless of grade. The classes are smaller, allowing teachers to focus on students’ individual learning needs, and class periods are longer.

Students earn points by working together as a team and by responding positively, Thompson said. “When they don’t get a correct answer, they work together to figure it out. This helps the children to be able to learn about each other, to trust each other and to work as partners. Those are the skills they’re going to need in the real world.”

Priest also incorporates heavy parent engagement, boasting one of the district’s eight Parent Resource Centers led by a team that Ms. Billops calls “the finest Detroit Parent Network within DPS,” as well as a Family Resource Center, and popular English Language Learner classes for adults.

As an added feature to make Priest a hub in its Southwest Detroit neighborhood that draws students and their families, three programs meet in the morning and afternoon: Schools of the 21st Century, Extended Day and Bilingual.  On most days, classes at Priest run from 8:00 a.m.-8:00 p.m.

“And I can’t say enough about our staff,” Billops said. “They are diligent, dedicated and they go way above and beyond the call of duty. They love working with the students, and they love what they do.”

This past summer, the school’s Leadership Team also created a new plan to raise attendance, which Billops said was a “thorn in our side.” Some strategies of the new plan include using an attendance agent, contacting parents directly, positive behavior reinforcement, and meticulous analysis of data, which is posted throughout the school.

The recipe seems to be working.

Already the school is seeing 25 to 30 percent gains in first grade reading test scores in the first quarter, Ms. Billops said. The school also has a 90 percent student attendance record and 97 percent staff attendance.

Students say they are made to feel at home at Priest, and are uniquely challenged to succeed, by teachers who not only care about them and acknowledge their diversity, but who also work hard to make lessons fun and interactive. And Priest has 100 percent certified teachers in the areas they teach.

Ximena Ortega, 12, said her favorite teacher is her science teacher Ms. Laycock because class is exciting and hands-on.

“When she teaches us she makes us do labs and makes them really fun. We get to experiment with classmates at our table.”

Julien Phillips, 12, does not hesitate when asked his favorite subject or his favorite teacher: “Math! My favorite teacher is Ms. McDougle. What makes her special is she’s fun and nice to be around and helps us on anything we need.”

That’s the focus, says Ms. Billops. “The entire staff of Priest acts in what is in the best interest of our students.”

And just as the school says in its school reform plan, they’re “putting together the puzzle one piece at a time.”

Something you didn’t know:

Principal Lisa Billops’ daughter, Kaitlyn Billops, works as a student teacher at Neinas. They have a gentle rivalry about which Southwest Detroit school is the best and whose attendance is better.

Educator Focus: Monica Weiss

Monica Weiss was born and raised in Detroit and has worked as a teacher for 25 years.   Monica moved to Texas in the 1980’s and taught for 10 years in the Dallas Independent School District.  She has been back in Detroit for the last 13 years and has taught mainly second grade at the following schools:

  • K.B. White
  • John Nichols
  • Marian Law Academy
  • Priest Elementary Middle

This is her second year at Priest and she teaches art to students from grades K-8.  Having never before taught art, she says she “loves it.”  She integrates literature in her classes and likes to focus on watercolor painting.

Ms. Weiss is also very interested  in the integration of art and all subjects as they relate to the Common Core and sits on the Positive Behavior Intervention Support team at school.  She believes that it is important for adults to recognize the good in students and to teach them how to resolve their problems in a peaceful manner.

Lastly, she is also the official photographer at the school.  According to her, “Photographs tell the story of our diverse cultures at Priest.”

In submitting her name, Ms. Billops said: “She’s a hardworking, busy lady and we truly appreciate her dedication and desire to add a touch of art to the curriculum of the students of Priest.”

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