Muskegon’s Education Leaders Focus on Positive Change

The following is a guest blog from Dr. John Severson, Superintendent of the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District. You can follow him on Twitter @jseverson2.

Muskegon’s Education Leaders Focus on Positive Change

What happens when an entire community locks arms and focuses on two clear priorities? Change. Movement from the status quo. Outside the box thinking. New conversations and positive movement. Investments in the future. New partnerships.

This has been the case the past few years in Muskegon County where our education leaders have worked collaboratively and consistently with business and community leaders to focus on reading and careers.

But how does a community begin? In Muskegon, we started with research and sharing countywide data on a broader scale with our business and school leaders, parents, and community. These data include socioeconomic variables, school readiness, math and reading scores, and college and career readiness. It reflects the true complexity of the lives of our children, which in some cases are laced with trauma, poverty, and feelings of hopelessness. Research on Adverse Childhood Experiences shows how the effects of trauma slip into our school doors, through the halls, and into our classrooms. The results are absenteeism, distraction, and behaviors that become barriers to learning.

Talent 2025 completed research in 2015 to learn more about the conditions that either inhibit or motivate educational success and talent development for youth. The results informed our work as well. The Barriers and Needs Project uncovered the meta themes of resiliency and emotional intelligence; cultural competence; hope, awareness and future perspective; family matters; and the power of collaboration. By spending time with 20 kids and their families, Talent 2025 provided Insights for Action that helped frame our work.

The importance of literacy

When it comes to literacy, our superintendents leaned heavily on research that proves babies and toddlers who are read to every day will be more ready for school, and ultimately more successful in life. This caused us to launch our Read early. Read often. countywide campaign three years ago. Yard signs and messages on business marquees, stickers and banners, and thousands of free books paid for by business leaders, have brought our message to “read every day, everything, everywhere” to life. In our elementary schools, literacy coaches work hand-in-hand with early elementary teachers to improve teaching practices in remarkable ways, and they work regionally with the Reading Now Network to improve systems to increase the reading levels of children.  By providing quality professional development opportunities to teachers and administrators, we believe we will spark an even stronger commitment to using research-based solutions so all of our students can succeed.   

When it comes to careers, we are upping our game. Research shows the more pre-college and pre-career experiences our students have, the more successful they will be. Creating opportunities for face-to-face conversations between students and employers is one of our highest priorities. Last year we pushed more internships, more externships, and more job shadowing. We even hosted a countywide career fair attended by over 300 soon-to-be graduates who had no set plans after high school. To connect these students with employers looking to hire was powerful! We did the same with adult education students through our Linked Muskegon program. We have also invested in Career Cruising software used countywide to better meet the needs of our students and to make it easier to connect them with local job opportunities. Lives are changed when we connect young people with employers.


Private investment and the Muskegon Area Promise

Finally, a private investment of over one million dollars by committed business leaders and organizations is transforming our community through the Muskegon Area Promise. This two-year college scholarship is offered to all students who live within Muskegon Area ISD boundaries and graduate with a cumulative 3.5 GPA or higher from a high school located within the ISD. This year 218 students, or 44% of those who were eligible, chose to attend Muskegon Community College or Baker College as Promise Scholars. Their families will save a projected $755,000 in tuition, books, and fees this year alone. Now we are working to leverage this investment to motivate students at every grade level to achieve at higher levels and become an active part of the Muskegon Area’s college going culture.

This past spring one of our business owners received an unsolicited email of thanks from one of his employees. The email said families throughout his daughter’s high school were “buzzing” about the Promise. He was thankful to his employer for the wonderful opportunity for families who could never afford to send their children to college before the Promise.

Like our neighboring counties, our community experiences greater levels of success when we all work together. Lives are changed and the future is brighter for all of us when we lock arms and focus. It begins with us.

Talent 2025 would like to thank Dr. Severson for contributing this blog post.

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