Brimley Area Schools

In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Native American culture nurtures academic success at Brimley schools.

By Patricia Montemurri

Brimley Elementary in Michigan’s rural Upper Peninsula went into overdrive to make up for instructional time diminished by Covid-19 Pandemic disruptions: doubling summer school from four weeks to eight weeks, increasing interventionist teachers from one to two, and opening a school store where all the clothing, shoes, food and hygiene products are free.  

For those served by Brimley schools, which includes the 1,800-resident Bay Mills Indian Community, when you help students, you’re also helping family.  

“I see people that I went to school with who are teachers here. They know people in the communities. They can reach out and ask questions,” said English Language Arts teacher Allyn Cameron, who is a former trustee of the Bay Mills Indian Community Tribal Council.  

“Just the care and concern shown – it’s an ever-growing part of who this community is,” added Cameron, who studied for a teaching degree in his 40s so he could join the staff of his former school. 

Cameron is not alone in his love for his alma mater, where more than half of the students are of Native American heritage. Brimley school administrators, teachers and staff are often school alumni, whose parents also are alumni and whose children attend the 210-student school. Brimley Area Schools Superintendent Brian Reattoir is also an alum, who once coached Brimley Elementary Principal Hugh Clarke. And Clarke’s grandmother was also once the district’s special program director, while his oldest child is now a Brimley student. 

Brimley Elementary’s student achievement results have benefitted from the close-knit familial care of the staff, strategies to address students’ needs at school and at home, extended learning opportunities and culturally relevant curriculum that honors the community.  Those efforts have combined to make Brimley Elementary an outlier in the state.  

For instance, 6th graders from economically disadvantaged backgrounds exceeded State of Michigan proficiency results in Math and English Language Arts during the 2021-2022 school year, even as another wave of the Covid-19 pandemic erupted, according to a statewide analysis by data analysts from The Education Trust-Midwest. That’s exceptional in a school where about 90 percent of students qualify for federally funded free or reduced-price lunch.

“When our kids feel a connection to their environment. It can help build their self-awareness, confidence and support their ability to succeed.”   

—Candice LeBlanc

Brimley Elementary alumna, current parent and the high school’s junior varsity volleyball coach 

Addressing social emotional and academic needs together 

The pandemic added to the challenges faced by many Brimley students. To contend with the pandemic’s unprecedented upheaval, “we had to focus on academics as well as social trauma from the pandemic,” said Superintendent Reattoir.  

During the height of the pandemic when teaching was exclusively virtual or for those who elected online learning during hybrid teaching periods, Brimley bus drivers, with teachers and staff aboard, drove to homes across the 350-square mile district with learning packets and food baskets. (The nearest “big city” to Brimley is 20 miles northeast in Sault Ste. Marie, with a population of about 13,500.) Brimley school buses were positioned throughout the area to provide Internet hotspots so kids could connect. During the first years of the pandemic, Clarke said some students recorded testing scores more than two years behind grade level. 

“Even with all of our efforts during the pandemic, we still came and saw a learning gap that dwarfed what we typically see in the summer,” said Clarke.  

Increasing learning time became a critical strategy

In 2021, Brimley Elementary doubled summer school from four weeks to eight weeks, and about 50 percent or 90 students attended. It’s become a fixture and was offered in 2023 for six weeks.  

As more students returned to in-person learning for the 2021-2022 school year, Brimley used NWEA (Northwest Evaluation Association) assessment for baselines. The school’s reading specialist, for example, used Fountas & Pinnell assessment, to access data “drilling down to the main issues,” said superintendent Reattoir. “And then we provided help with the interventionist teacher.” 

For the last three school years, Brimley schools also allotted money to pay for an Eastern Upper Peninsula Intermediate School District (ISD) specialist to coach each Brimley teacher on best practices in reading and math instruction. School districts in Michigan’s sparsely populated Upper Peninsula rely heavily on the Eastern Upper Peninsula Intermediate School District to maximize services.  

“We’ll continue to do that until we see what I feel is adequate gain, which is 100 percent of our students making progress,” said Reattoir.   

Once a month, an ISD math specialist also conducts workshops for teachers in a program emphasizing Professional Learning Core standards in math.  

Through that, teachers “learn how the standards work in the grade below them. They learn how the standards work in the grade above them, and so they’re able to understand how the scaffolding or the growth of the students goes, not just in their particular grade,” explains Clarke. “And it really opens up the understanding of those standards for our staff.”  

When kids returned to school for the 2021-2022 school year, Brimley’s afterschool program also was beefed up, and the program doubled from two days a week to four, with transportation provided for the later hours and two certified teachers in the program instead of one. After-school tutoring is three days now. Prior to the pandemic, Brimley Elementary had one teacher designated as an interventionist. Now there are two teachers.  

“So, we were able to really more than double, in some spots, the number of kids that we were able to offer these extra services to, to try to close those learning gaps” caused by the pandemic, said Clarke.   

To help kindergarteners catch up, Brimley had every kindergartener in the 2021-2022 school year receive one-on-one tutoring from a reading interventionist. It was necessary, said Clarke, because the pandemic interrupted some HeadStart and early childhood programs for preschoolers.  

Alexia Jarvi, a third-grade teacher, says she can still see how the Covid pandemic stunted some of her students’ social development.  

Her 3rd graders were in kindergarten when the Covid pandemic hit.  Their formal schooling has been imprinted by Covid restrictions, and Jarvi can describe how the aftershocks manifest themselves in a myriad of ways. She’s seen kids recoil from touching equipment, fearing germs or not wanting to get close to other students.  Earlier this school year, she talked to her students about contingency plans should something require more at-home online participation. “And they all said, ‘We don’t want to go online. We want to stay here in school.’”  

“I’ve really had to show them how they can work with other students… Like you can have disagreements and still be friends after it,” said Jarvi, adding that the impacts of COVID disruptions in the early grades had a significant impact on the students.  

A school social worker, who had a part-time schedule before the pandemic, now works full time at the school. An Eastern Upper Peninsula Intermediate School District social worker visited the school for 3.5 days, but “we saw the need to have the social worker at the district for the entire week, so we paid the extra 1.5 days to have the opportunity,” said Reattoir. 

It’s also amped up the schedule for a speech pathologist, too. 

“We went from contracting through the local hospital to hiring our own, so we are not competing with other districts and their needs, and concentrating on our students,” said Reattoir. Brimley funded these innovations through State of Michigan funding for at-risk school populations and federal monies for pandemic relief.  

Serving families to serve students 

The school district also realized it wasn’t enough to simply serve students’ academic needs. In true Brimley style, school staff brainstormed how to help families that were struggling, too. 

So, Brimley opened the “Tack Room” — a store where there are no price tags, and no currency or credit cards are accepted. Everything’s free in the Tack Room, a reference to the school nickname of Bays, a chestnut-colored horse. All the items have been donated by local businesses or are gently used by previous owners.  

Reattoir says the store — open to any students at any time – is part of “teaching the whole child.”  By December 2022, the store had distributed more than 500 pieces of clothing, and about 1,000 food and hygiene products.  

“We offer anything clothing-wise – shirts, hats or pants, coats, boots, mittens. We also offer food supplies through our store,” said Reattoir. “This is all done through donations through local community businesses.” 

“We have some students who get backpacks sent home with them for the weekends so that they have food at home. We’ve had families that have lost homes to fires this year. We have supplied them with all new clothing and bedding and food, hygiene products,” said Reattoir. “So, I’m very proud of that.”  

Addressing the whole child 

Brimley Elementary also has an SAT squad. SAT has a different meaning than the standardized test for college-bound students. Here, it means Student Assistance Team and it consists of the principal and staffers who interact with a student exhibiting troublesome behavior or who is struggling.  

“We get together, and we brainstorm ideas after school on how we can help this student to be successful, what accommodations we can make, what type of things that we can put into place for positive behaviors,” explains Clarke. “We come up with ideas. We come up with a plan, and then we put it into action.”  

The school encourages good behavior through its “Bays Ways” positive-behavior reinforcement system.  Students earn reward tickets for exemplary behavior or achievement and are rewarded with prizes at school-wide events. 

Honoring community 

Part of the school’s success can also be attributed to its work to honor its school community. Lessons are infused with culturally relevant instruction that allow students to see themselves reflected in what they learn. 

For instance, the curriculum is infused with literature and history that showcases the impact of the Bay Mills Indian Community.  That’s especially meaningful as the reservation is just one mile away from the Brimley Schools K-12 campus. Brimley also enrolls young people who are members of the nearby Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. 

“We try to incorporate much Native American culture into our reading, and we really focus on getting those stories that keep our kids culturally inclusive,” said 5th grade teacher Annie Rutledge. One particular book that resonated with her students: “Birchbark House” by Louise Erdrich, the story about a young Ojibwa girl growing up on an island in Lake Superior in the mid-1800s. Such stories, regardless of cultural background, resonate with all students who live in the rural Upper Peninsula. 

Brimley’s Parent Advisory Committee, which includes school administrators, parents, grandparents, the Bay Mills Tribal Education director and Native American students, meets monthly to assess and review programming for Native Americans, which is available to all Brimley students. The committee reviews events, activities and curriculum and makes suggestions, recommendations for changes and additions, said Reattoir. 

The school held its 12th annual Powwow in March, featuring traditional dances and drum ceremonies by locals. Superintendent Reattoir participated in the tribal Snow Snakes event.  A snow snake is a wooden spear-like implement with serpent features. Reattoir tossed his snow snake some 280 feet, admirable but outperformed by throws nearing 400 feet.  

Clarke, whose wife and four children are members of the Bay Mills Indian Community, says the area has a special hold on those who grew up there. 

“We see our community members come back to either work here, to volunteer here, or just be active within the school day,” says Clarke. “Students that graduate from Brimley continue their whole life to feel like they’re part of the Brimley school community.”  

The vital contributions of community

Candice LeBlanc feels that tug to Brimley schools. As the past operations director of the Boys & Girls Club of Bay Mills, she helped secure federal funding that boosted academic and cultural resources for Brimley schools. She’s an alumna, a current parent and the high school’s junior varsity volleyball coach.  She’s also a member of the Bay Mills Community and her husband, Jacques, is the current Bay Mills Tribal Council vice president, as well the varsity basketball coach and golf coach. 

“There is so much more available to students now than when I was in school,” says LeBlanc. 

“The only exposure to my culture when I was a student was what I brought to the classroom. I would bring in crafts my parents made and showcase them. I wrote about historical moments in the history of Native Americans. In 6th grade, I can remember dancing in my regalia,” said LeBlanc. “Now, they’ve asked my daughter to bring in her regalia. She was asked. It shows how far they’ve come in terms of providing exposure and having Native students be who they are in the walls of the school.” 

Since 2005, the Boys & Girls Club staffed an after-school program for Brimley students. But several years ago, the program received a substantial boost after LeBlanc applied for a Native Youth Community Project grant through the U.S. Office of Indian Education. She deployed demographic information and school-related data, as well as amplified the need for targeted assistance based on deep dialogue within her community. 

Over several years, Bay Mills Indian Community members engaged in “Talking Circles” and “Elder Circles,” – focus groups centered on education, health and culture as part of the “Honoring Our Children Initiative’’ launched by the Inter-Tribal Council of Michigan. There was frank dialogue about tribal members’ experiences with public education and how Brimley schools could improve serving their children. Those talks also brought to the surface stories of how tribal members experienced the sting of discrimination. 

The Boys & Girls Club of Bay Mills received a $1.3 million grant to partner with Brimley schools to create an academic support program, named “empowering our Native Youth” to bolster programs for at-risk students. The program money helped fund after-school tutoring time and other programs focused on academic success and youth development. The Boys & Girls Club program operates in addition to Brimley schools’ after-school tutoring. 

The Boys & Girls club program “provides our students with an extra opportunity to have a safe place after school to get a meal, to get extra assistance with their education opportunities,” said Superintendent Reattoir. “It’s a fun place to hang out and they’ve helped us invaluably with keeping kids up to date with their work. 

The program is “as much a part of our team as our faculty and staff is during the day,” said Reattoir. “I can’t say enough good things about them. They’re a huge part of helping our students succeed.” 

LeBlanc says much more can be done, such as educating more school staff and the broader community about the concerns and contributions of the tribal community. 

“When our kids feel a connection to their environment,” notes Candice LeBlanc, “it can help build their self-awareness, confidence and support their ability to succeed.”