School of the Week: Clark, J.E. Preparatory Academy

A principal’s guide to organizing a school around improved achievement and impacting students’ lives on a daily basis

Organize your school around the essential principles of academic achievement and school culture, and not only will you see data record improvements in those areas, your school’s student attendance and enrollment will increase as well.

It’s a straightforward plan delivered by second year principal Demond Thomas.

J.E. Clark Preparatory Academy, in the Morningside community on the far east side, has gotten local, state and national attention for visits this past year by the leaders of General Motors, Lear Corp., Florida A&M and countless media and civic officials, and has served as the focus of several public and private community million-dollar revitalization investment announcements.

The first hour on a Wednesday morning midway through the Spring portrays a school that functions well on a daily basis in supporting students’ education, building positive behavior, and surrounding the children with role models for success in life.

The morning announcements at 8:40 are one-third listings of events, programs, birthdays and lunch menus, and two-thirds review of the roles and responsibilities for students every day. Student Council members refer to the Student Code of Conduct and recite their goals to Aspire to Go Higher.

“Our goal is to leave a lot smarter at 3:05 this afternoon than when we started at 8:40 a.m.”

Then Principal Thomas concludes the daily overview with this reminder: “Our goal is to leave a lot smarter at 3:05 this afternoon than when we started at 8:40 a.m., and to share that knowledge with our neighborhood.”

“It’s important to remind students at all times the behavior and expectations that we want them to follow every day,” he comments. “It also helps them get through each day. And, if they haven’t picked up more knowledge by the time they leave each and every day than when they arrived, we haven’t done our jobs.”

As far as bringing that knowledge home and sharing it with the community, on PI Day six weeks ago for example, Thomas says he was amazed how many adults commented that they had learned from their students the significance of this educationally-themed day.

Clark Academy’s Aspire to Go Higher theme is painted in red on the main hallway alongside colorful displays of student work, inspirations and numerous collegiate aspirations where previously the white walls were mostly bare.

Specifically, “Aspire to Go Higher” has taken the students to institutions of higher education including Eastern Michigan University, Michigan State University and, this week, to Howard University in Washington, D.C.

In March, Howard students including DPS alums came to Detroit and made an unplanned two-day connection to Clark Academy and had a remarkable impact on the younger students. The days were filled with stories of personal barriers overcome, role modeling and support. Contact information was quickly shared between the college co-eds and Clark students. For Principal Thomas, it was one of many lessons to learn from and to share with his teaching staff.

“I told them that if these young people had such an impact in two days, imagine what an impact we can have on them through the course of an entire year.”

Society makes the students in the middle grades grow up too fast

The impact was especially powerful on the eighth-graders, a cohort at Clark that Thomas spends a great deal of his time and energy with. He refers to them as his “babies.”

“This is the time that students are easiest influenced. You’re growing up. Society and the situation in a lot of households make you grow up too fast.”

Know Your E’s and M’s

The staff here are reminded continually that success in helping their students succeed both academically and socially is based on the Four E’s:

Understanding Environment/Exposure + Setting High Expectations + Providing Encouragement= Academic Excellence.

Thomas says he lives by those E’s and includes them nightly in staff notes waiting for teachers to open in each morning’s email delivery.

There’s also the Four M’s: Modify. Maintain. Motivate. Monitor. “Every decision we make is based on how best to motivate the students.”

Thomas says he has been focused on monitoring the day-to-day schedules and plans for each student with an emphasis on consistency. He has worked to modify teacher assignments to work with everyone’s strengths and, when the universal teacher application/interviewing/placement program took place across DPS last summer, some 75% of the teaching staff changed, including retirements and transfers.

He reflects upon the process as having taught some valuable lessons, including challenging some longstanding beliefs, at least as they related to Clark Academy at that time. “It’s an assumption that you need a lot of men to teach these students. That’s not necessarily always the case.  And, not every teacher is suited to teach elementary-middle school.”

Every space, every minute focused

A mid-week tour of the school during the hour after Announcements displays the focus of the principal and his staff on the essential academic/school culture focus throughout the building and campus, as well as creative use of space to support those goals. Aspire to Go Higher-themed posters are everywhere. The auditorium serves as the setting for one-half of each student’s lunch periods, which are adjusted to provide nutrition in the gym followed by small group educational programs, movies and presentations in the auditorium across the hall.

The library has been converted to a special needs resource center housing three certified teachers. An imaginary line that students know not to cross separates the elementary from the middle grades. While Thomas devotes more than his share of the time to the needs of the middle school, the early elementary wing is where he retreats when there’s “a need for love and to be treated like a superstar.”

All DPS schools have data walls. Inside Clark, it’s more like a Data Wall of Fame, or Data Street. The Clark Academy Data Lane, or Data Boulevard, covers both sides of the second floor middle hallway from end to end as it leads to two fully-equipped converted computer labs including the one used by the nearby East English Village high school students who assist the middle schoolers through a Lear-funded program.

Not only is every spot in the building utilized, it seems as though every minute of the day is used to “get back to basics,” improve achievement and create the Clark culture.  “Instructional Zone” signs dot the walls. Two single-file lines of 5th graders waiting to use the restroom look like any other group of students across the city, with one exceptional addition. A teacher hands each a book at the beginning of the line and collects those books back into a box just outside the bathroom door. With a drop in fifth-grade reading scores last year, the school is leaving nothing to chance, and no useful time unprogrammed, to ensure that’s not repeated and reading achievement progresses.

Those bathrooms and others throughout the school have been painted by students and adorned with student artwork this year to ensure that a positive culture continues during those bathroom breaks.

Eighth-grader Hassan Purnell, who is set to attend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Senior High School next year, came to Clark Academy this year after attending charter schools elsewhere. Fellow eighth-grade student Rukmini Carr has been at this school since kindergarten and will attend EEVPA next fall. Both remark that the school provides a highly nurturing setting and meets its daily goal of imparting knowledge that they readily share with family and community members.

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