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Discovery Elementary

A school where diversity is a superpower and culture is valued

By Courtney Wise-Randolph

“They don’t belong to somebody else,” said Discovery Elementary founding principal Deb McNally. “We believe that all kids can learn, diversity is our strength, and all these kids are all ours.”

That’s the philosophy and guiding principle pushing Discovery, a Kentwood public school, to set big goals for itself—and not only meet them but sustain them. The majority of students at Discovery, including those living in low-income households, are proficient in reading and math. It’s been that way for years.

Discovery Elementary has demonstrated consistent commitment to their diverse school community by addressing language barriers, hosting cultural celebration days, and advocating for a culturally-responsive curriculum.

In the English learner classroom at Discovery, this is seen clearly in pictures, books, and even cultural artifacts representative of the countries, languages and practices of students’ native lands on display on all four walls—and even hanging from the classroom ceiling. In the library, where every student at Discovery goes to explore, the window displays and bookshelves students encounter at the entryway are lined with Black and Brown children on the covers, with references to the cultural heritages of students throughout the school.

“All of this is intentional,” said Discovery’s current principal Blair Feldkamp, and it’s easy to know that is the truth.

“They don’t belong to somebody else,” said Discovery Elementary founding principal Deb McNally. “We believe that all kids can learn, diversity is our strength, and all these kids are all ours.”

— Deb McNally

Founding Principal

In support of their belief that all children are capable of high achievement, students also learn in groups tailored to their levels, and teachers utilize small learning groups to support students who are struggling. But members of the staff find that at the center of Discovery’s success is its commitment to building strong relationships and having every adult in the building take responsibility for every student.

“There’s such a prevailing dominance of care and compassion for students,” said school interventionist Troy Baker, who joined the school after a 24-year career with the Michigan Department of Corrections and is parent to a child with a disability who had a challenging experience in the public school system.

You can detect that sense of responsibility in the intense and intentional classroom methods. The school also is strategic about designing instructional and learning strategies to help students reach pivotal goals.

For instance, teachers work to ensure that all Discovery students grow into strong readers by the end of second grade, rather than third. In this way, they set internal learning goals to ensure no student is caught in the balance of Michigan’s 3rd grade reading retention law. Learners are never pulled from core instruction, and all K-2 learners– regardless of whether they’re working toward or have already surpassed the proficiency bar– receive targeted small group reading instruction.

And the responsibility that the staff feels for all students translates to exceptional results. For instance, in 2019 Discovery’s proficiency rate for its Black students in English Language Arts and Math was higher than the statewide rates for those subjects for Michigan students overall. That’s significant in a state where proficiency rates lag for subgroups.

Discovery staff also demonstrate immense care, compassion, and consideration for students and families, considering their diversity to be their strength.

As an example, the school is intentional about providing learning tools that acknowledge and affirm the diverse community of students at the school. With over 700 students, 39 languages spoken, and students representing Black, Latino, Asian, Indigenous and White communities—including many English learners—it’s a big deal.

“I went to a private school that was 90% White. And when kids would see a name that was different, they might giggle or say, ‘Who has a name like that?’ That devalues students in a significant way,” said Discovery teacher Jacqueline Inclan.

“I’ve noticed that the curriculum [at Discovery] refers to more ethnically diverse names, which is a small thing, but it says to kids ‘I see you,’ and there’s more than just John and Susan out there, which I think is important for kids to realize,” Inclan said.

As Michigan continues to struggle to be a top state for education, Discovery Elementary is an example of what’s possible when a school’s full staff is invested in student success, uses evidence-based instructional strategies, and provides the resources necessary to students in a safe and affirming learning environment.

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