Educators and parents who are searching for the secret to make students absolutely love coming to school—look no further. Carleton Elementary School kindergarten teacher Marla Nenninger offers her top-secret tip for molding children into life-long learners: lots of smiles.
Nenninger said her main strategy with any lesson plan created for the district’s early learners is to “make sure they’re having a blast with every single assignment, and if you see lots of smiles, that means they’re enjoying learning.”
“We are the start of their education, so you want to make learning fun for them,” she said. “Every day, I hear kids saying ‘I love school.’ That, I feel as a kindergarten teacher, is my job—to make them love school starting now so that when they’re in first grade, second grade and beyond, they’ll continue to love learning.”
Investing early in our youngest learners
District leaders had that same mind set when Detroit Public Schools launched a Universal Pre-Kindergarten initiative in July by adding Pre-K classrooms across the district, vastly expanding early childhood offerings to eligible students.
Carleton is one of nearly two dozen schools to add a new Pre-K classroom during the 2013-2014 school year under the district’s five-year Strategic Plan. In total, DPS now operates Pre-K classrooms at nearly 70 schools with a capacity for 3,530 young learners.
The goal behind the Universal Pre-K plan is designed to invest early in students through expanded preschool programs for all eligible four-year-olds as multiple studies show quality early childhood education pays dividends with improved academic success and graduation rates.
As part of a recent science unit for Carleton’s early learners, a kindergarten class explored the five senses through rotating stations set up in the school’s cafeteria. The activities were also tied to Halloween.
At the sight station, students made small Halloween-themed headbands. They were required to use various shapes and colors like bright blue and orange stars, yellow rectangles and green circles in the design and then accurately identify each item before adding it to their headband.
At the hearing center, the students excitedly grabbed their headphones to listen to stories on a CD. To make the project even more interactive, each student was provided with a handout showcasing different body parts. They were instructed to record what they were doing by circling the body part they were using and drawing a picture of themselves illustrating the activity.
The smell center featured tiny cups with different scents for student to guess, causing scrunched noses and tiny giggles as they smelled some “stinky stuff,” as one kindergartener proclaimed. At the touch center, each student took a turn at reaching their hand into a large decorated bag to guess which slimy, cold, rubbery or rough object they were feeling.
Perhaps the most fun of all was the taste center, where students used miniature Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and pretzel sticks to make a witch’s broom and fudge striped cookies with a Hershey’s Kiss to make the witch’s hat.
“Look at these kids; they’re having a blast,” Nenninger said. “They’re having so much fun that they don’t even realize their learning.”
Three E’s for success: ‘Expecting Everything Excellent’
The positive, enthusiastic demeanor of dedicated teachers starts with the head educator at Carleton: Principal Lachelle Williams. With an entirely new staff—more than 90% of the teachers and administrators were hand-picked by Williams this year—Williams said Carleton is headed in a new direction where all staff members share the same mission.
“We are a highly effective group of educators who have a passion for teaching, learning and having fun,” Williams said. “We work very hard to follow the mission and the goals as stated by the leaders of our district. Therefore, our students receive a quality educational experience from teachers who are experts in their content areas and who work very hard trying to engage and involve parents in all aspects of their child’s teaching and learning.”
Williams said she expects nothing less than excellence from her team, something that is evident upon entering the school. As you walk the hallways of Carleton, there is a common theme of expecting excellence plastered on the walls.
The words “Expect Excellence” are painted in bold black letters above a glass showcase welcoming visitors to the school. A banner that reads “Soaring to Excellence” hangs in bright green letters above recent MEAP test scores in the main hallway.
On an adjacent wall, “Making Excellence a Necessity” sprawls above smaller posters with photos and messages that teach students about attitude, generosity, perseverance, goals, strength, discipline and—of course—excellence.
To ensure students are performing at excellent academic levels, Carleton teachers differentiate their instruction based on information received from testing data.
“We looked at MEAP, MAP, DIBELS, Star Reading and Star Math assessment scores. We also looked at formative and informative assessment data,” Williams said. “We have weekly Grade-Level Team meetings and we do lots of planning. We also made sure our teachers received training in the areas of Response to Intervention and Differentiation of Instruction.”
Nenninger added, “Every single teacher here at every grade level is so dedicated to making sure students enjoy learning,” she said. “I feel very fortunate to be working with them. And I can’t tell you enough how much our principal works for the students. Her number one priority is to get the students here, and make them want to be here. She also gives her staff everything that we could possibly hope for to help us help our students.”
Word of Carleton’s strong academic program is spreading quickly throughout the community. Williams said she started the school year with an anticipated enrollment of 182 students. The school now has more than 300 students enrolled.
Parents make the difference
Educators and administrators admit they aren’t making such strides alone. Parent involvement plays a crucial role in both student achievement and maintaining the day-to-day operations at Carleton. Two parent volunteers are known on a first-name basis by Carleton students and staff as they help out daily at the school.
Michael Jackson, president of the Carleton PACSA (Parent Advisory Council on Student Achievement), and John Fitzgerald, a grandparent at Carleton, provide daily support to teachers, office staff members, students in the classrooms and even on the fields during after-school athletic programs.
Fitzgerald, a retiree, is a full-time volunteer for not only Carleton, but also the M.A.N. Network which patrols several DPS schools to help support the district’s Safe Routes program.
“My main goal is to be a presence as a man because we don’t have a lot of men in our schools,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s always the women who are volunteering, and I feel deeply in my heart that men should have a presence in their kid’s lives. Having men around makes a big difference, especially with discipline.”
“Any parent should volunteer—just to be a presence in your child’s life,” Fitzgerald added. “It makes them feel proud to have their parents in school helping. The students need you. They really need you to be here. The teachers can’t do it all.”
John Fitzgerald’s grandson Jay’Ante Fitzgerald, 9, is a fourth-grader at Carleton. Grandpa’s giving spirit has rubbed off tremendously on Jay’Ante. During the School of the Week visit, he was busy in the cafeteria helping the kindergartners complete their five senses project. When asked what he wants to be when he grows up, Jay’Ante responded, “A doctor or a police officer because I like to help people.”
Even when sharing what his favorite sports programs are at the school, such as basketball and soccer offered through the district’s new Elementary-Middle School Sports League, Jay’Ante shared that he likes to help his teammates score more points.
“Even if we don’t win, we have fun together,” he said proudly with a grin. “That’s called good sportsmanship.”
In addition to basketball and soccer, students also enjoy flag football, dance, cheerleading, science club, drama and drill team as after-school activities.
As for having his granddad around all the time, Jay’Ante had this to say: “I like that we both get to be here. I would be happy for other kids if their parents were here all the time too. Maybe they would be smarter like me. My teachers love me. I get all A’s and B’s.”
Something you didn’t know…
After hearing feedback from parents requesting help with reading and writing skills, Carleton now offers a 14-week Literacy Instruction program for parents. A GED Program is also offered.