School of the Week: Mark Twain School for Literary Scholars

A center for literary scholars, and their families

Mark Twain School for Literary Scholars, a prekindergarten through eighth-grade school, has new leadership, a new name and a renewed focus on providing a rigorous college-preparatory education to help all students become academic and creative scholars.

Under veteran principal Linda Whitaker’s first-year leadership here in the city’s far, far southwestern tip (sometimes viewed as the “Toe” on a Detroit map and owned by longtime residents and leaders as “The 48217”), the school is well underway on its process toward recommitting that its students will learn to apply their skills across a broad range of subjects:  the language arts (reading, English and writing/publishing), introduction to foreign language, math, science, social studies, fine arts, physical education/health and technology.

Whitaker and her team are working tirelessly to ensure that Mark Twain’s emphasis will help students become future experts as published authors, exhibited museum artists, dancers, and more — all within the traditional curriculum, which is aligned to the rigorous Common Core Standards.

Whitaker, who was herself a parent in this school at one time, is now employing strategies that are wide ranging with one common goal: to make Mark Twain the school of choice that is community-centered and family friendly, with a child-centered curriculum. She says, “We are creating. We are doing this with purpose. We want others to tell us what they think of our work. We’re instilling pride.”

She’s focused on attendance with individual student perfect attendance and school-wide daily attendance—never lower than 92%, and at 98% on the recent Count Day Wednesday—on displays and posters surrounding the main office entry doors.

She reorganized and created a new model of instruction when she moved teachers in third-to-fifth grades from self-contained classrooms to teaching within their specialty areas of math, language arts and science.

So, “write, write, write”

This truly is a school for literary scholars. The principal and teachers’ focus on writing is evident everywhere, starting with early childhood education and including an art/writing program, and a character building book publishing program. Participation in the book publishing experience assists students in developing characters, telling a story, editing, using proper grammar and sentence structure, as well as conveying and describing what it is they want the reader to see.

“You can’t write just anything. You have to determine what message you want to convey,” Principal Whitaker notes.

A poster in second-grade teacher Kavita Dayal’s classroom, one of many daily, subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle reminders, states:

“Writing is fun.

Writing is fun.

Writing is fun for everyone.

The more you write,

The better you write.

So, write, write, write.”

Community and families across the generations

Dayal also states what many teachers, volunteers and parents at the school have observed: that the school’s teaching staff is excited and becoming ever more community oriented. “It’s like the door just opened and we realized that this is our family here,” she says.

Staff have also brought their children to be educated at Twain.

For the newest, youngest members of the Mark Twain School for Literary Scholars, it’s all about family. Fourth grader Anadetola, whose mother—a Twain teacher— transferred her from a Dearborn public school, says she felt welcomed and accepted as soon as she arrived. She quickly became involved in Academic Games and is looking forward to joining a new Dance Team.

That’s true for the longest serving as well, such as the front office team comprised of Counselor Emeritus Joyce (“I was a counselor for 11 years and volunteered for 20”) Thomas and 38-year-tenure secretary Roxanna Moore, who keeps the unofficial tally of former students who have returned as parents to the school. Moore says the family atmosphere has become stronger as enrollment has begun to increase and the school has reached into more nearby neighborhoods that touch The 48217 and also River Rouge, Ecorse, Lincoln Park and Melvindale.

Deveren Crutcher, father of kindergarten and first grade Mark Twain students, is one of an estimated 50% of the school’s families whose Twain alumni parents now send their children to school here. A virtually full-time volunteer in the library, Crutcher says Mark Twain has been a community school for the past 20-30 years and that recent efforts only strengthen that heritage. “It brings it back to what I’ve known it to be, as the place where kids came up to to keep from walking the neighborhood and where parents always knew where to find you.”

The school’s enrollment increased 16% this fall, and among the 39 new students recent transfers have come from Caesar Chavez Academy, other local charters and nearby suburban schools.

Volunteering, serving, and…getting the cupcakes

Whitaker says the staff never stop finding new ways to assist the students in their care and many volunteer for after-school and enrichment programs. “They do whatever is needed for the children.”

In a school with increasing academic rigor and writing scholars, that help often includes things that are not solely academic. When asked how new leadership and new community members meet and establish and build mutual trust, she tells the story of personally providing a ride to Krogers for a parent lacking transportation to get her child’s birthday cupcakes. Whitaker says, somewhat metaphorically, she received not only a cupcake but a slice of pizza in return. When you say full service in the community, “it means everything,” she states.

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