As students arrive at school, Principal Teressa Gatza is outside Challenger Elementary School happily welcoming students. She seems to know each student by name as she greets them with a high-five, a “Good morning,” a positive pep talk…or all three! “Make it a great day,” she says to one, while fist-bumping another and telling yet another, “Be amazing!” In between greeting students, she chats with parents as they drop off their kids. She calls this morning ritual the best moment of every day.
It sets the tone for the day. “It matters when children know you’re excited and happy to see them upon arrival,” she says. And it doesn’t stop there. Inside the building, teachers stand outside their classrooms, smiling, hugging, and greeting their students with a demeanor that is as bright and cheery as the colorful walls of their classrooms.
“This is very intentional,” says Gatza, who’s in her 8th year as principal of the school in Kentwood, MI., which borders Grand Rapids. Making certain students feel good about being in school sets a foundation for learning that’s key to building the success of the school’s approximately 360 students in grades K through 5. “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”
The majority of students at Challenger come from low-income households and are students of color. And it’s among that very population that Challenger shows remarkable progress, making this school a true outlier in the state. While students’ scores are not yet where school leaders want them to be, The Education Trust-Midwest’s analyses show consistent and above average growth in math and English Language Arts, notably for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, Black students and English Learners.
The formula that leads to the school’s results is intentional. It includes assessing where each student stands academically and targeting instruction and support to bring them up to or beyond grade level. But everything starts with making sure each student feels recognized and cared for.
“We believe in making sure all students have a strong sense of belonging at Challenger and that all students feel seen and heard,” Gatza says.
The culture of caring that’s evident throughout the school builds on a national initiative the school has utilized for the past several years called, “Capturing Kids Hearts.” Their implementation of the program has led Challenger to be recognized as a Capturing Kids Hearts National Showcase School for the past five years in a row.