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.
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.”