Saving Lansing Eastern High School

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By Ryan Squanda
The Lansing Star

LANSING — It’s Friday morning at Lansing Eastern High School, and Principal Donna Pohl doesn’t have a second to spare. In just the last 30 minutes of her busy morning, Pohl has worked on a task on LEHS’s third floor, made her way back down for the morning announcements and is already on her way to complete the day’s next mission.

“Let’s walk and talk. We multitask around here,” she says as she makes her way to set up for in-school truancy court before she’s scheduled to meet with someone in a little over 10 minutes.

“As the leader of this building, I have a lot of hats to wear.”

This is a sight that can be seen a lot these days at Lansing Eastern High School. Ever since 2002 and the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act, Eastern has been recognized by the Michigan Department of Education in some variation of what’s known today as a “Priority School” – meaning it falls within the bottom 5 percent of public schools in Michigan in terms of student performance in mathematics, reading, writing, science and social studies and graduation rate data.

For Eastern, they score below average in several of these categories and more.

Eastern Averages State Averages
Graduation Rate 66% 77%
Dropout Rate 23% 11%
Average ACT Score 17.2 19.8
Math Proficiency (MME) <10% 29%
Science Proficiency (MME) 12% 26%
Reading Proficiency (MME) 40% 54%

According to the Michigan Department of Education, in order for a school to avoid being named Priority in the annual identification process, it needs to rank at or above the 5th percentile. If the school can’t do so within five years, it risks state intervention.

In turn, the daily efforts from people like Pohl have all become part of the Lansing School District’s ongoing process to prove to the community that they belong as an educational institution and to save the struggling school from eventually being taken over by the state.

New Things

After rescuing a student’s deserted backpack in the hallway, Pohl finally makes her way to the room where the truancy court is set to take place in a few hours.

“This is exciting,” she says while moving tables and chairs around the room. “This is the first time we’ve ever done this … The first time ever!”

“But you know what, I’m excited. I’m always excited to try new things.”

There’s been a lot of new things taking place in LEHS’s halls as of late, the very same school which first opened its doors to students in 1928 and still stands today as the city’s oldest functioning public school building.

Eastern is a 7th-12th grade school located just off the corner of Pennsylvania and Michigan Avenue.

Eastern is a 7th-12th grade school located just off the corner of Pennsylvania and Michigan Avenue.

Lending a helping hand in that very same room as Pohl is Ben Botwinski, a former teacher on the west side of Michigan and contributing author to the book “Homework Done Right.” Botwinski is another relatively new thing to Eastern.

As a grad student at nearby Michigan State University studying educational and administrative policy, Botwinski was brought in by the district in July of 2013 upon recognition that more needed to be done in order to turn the district’s nine priority schools around.

Botwinski’s official title is District Transformation Coordinator, meaning he assists in the improvement efforts of the priority schools in Lansing, helps teachers and principals with instructional practices, and acts as a source of communication between different buildings within the district.

And while all three high schools in the city’s district – Eastern, Sexton and Everett – are currently classified as priority schools, none has been on the list as long as Eastern. In addition, in just the past few years of having this label, both Sexton and Everett are already starting to make some noticeable improvements.

“In 2010, when the state changed to the Priority School System, Eastern was in the very first cohort of schools that were identified at that time,” said Botwinski, who spends 70 percent of his time at Eastern. “The sanctions each year that you stay on that list, now get greater and greater and greater. The state designed a four year system and it was supposed to be after four years, you’d be off or you’d been taken over. Eastern is now in their fifth year … So we’re really on borrowed time already as a school.”

According to Botwinski, if Eastern were to be taken over, it would likely be by the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan, a new public system of schools whose mission is to fundamentally improve public education in Michigan. However, the current Legislation has only approved the EAA for schools in Detroit and the legislation for the approval of this system to step in on other struggling schools across the state of Michigan has been stalled at the State Capitol building, leaving the future of Eastern in an unknown limbo.

However, even with state intervention looming, several programs and changes to daily school life at Eastern have begun to take place.

Since coming to the Lansing School District, Botwinski has had a hand in several of the recent changes at Eastern, including the new weekly schedule at the school.

Four days of the week have been extended by one hour, allowing an extra period for students to either make up a credit or stay in a class for two periods in a row to receive extra help. However, on Wednesdays classes are delayed 2.5 hours to allow teachers to come in early to meet and collaborate on where they are as a school and where they would like to be.

In addition to the daily schedule at Eastern, there are several other areas where improvement efforts are being made at the school, from the resources the Ingham County Intermediate School District provides – which ranges from math coaches, data support and teacher evaluations – to an alternative governance committee composed of both teachers and parents where they meet and talk about what’s going on at Eastern.

Quakers Belong

Aside from the efforts being made to improve the academic achievements of Eastern, according to Pohl, just as many changes are being made to improve the overall culture at Eastern and to make every student truly feel like they belong.

“We have a little mantra that we say every day on the PA: Quakers are kind, Quakers work hard and Quakers belong,” said Pohl, playing off of the school’s team mascot. “That’s what we are instituting in our culture. This is the thinking we want our students to have, is to come to school prepared, to be kind, to work hard and to belong with us.”

This sense of belonging starts from the very second students walk in the building, where the students are greeted at a Welcome Center, signed in and helped to where they need to go.

In addition to this, what is typically known as the the In School Suspension (ISS) room in most schools, at Eastern is known as the “All Quakers Can Succeed” room.

“This is kind of somewhere for a student to go if they’re having a bad day or need to blow off some steam,” Botwinski says.

Ben Botwinskio

Lansing School District Transformation Coordinator Ben Botwinski showing off Eastern’s Learning Center.

But if you take short walk through the three story school with Botwinski, you’ll notice right away all the other programs at Eastern that make every student feel a sense of belonging.

There are the co-taught classrooms between both special education students and general educations students – to which the teachers of these classrooms say they neither know which students are classified as “special ed” – nor do they want to know.

And the Learning Center, a place for students to go to get extra help after school and also where the school has now begun serving dinner to students.

Or even Eastern’s unique International Baccalaureate opportunity – an intense educational program at the school where at the end of a student’s high school career, can graduate with 32 college credits – the very same program one Eastern student utilized to earn a scholarship to Harvard University a year ago.

At Lansing Eastern High School, there’s something for everyone – each program a chance for a student to show what they’re made of, each initiative a chance for the school to show that they can do good for the community.

Quakers Believe

Along with the never ending goal to make students feel like they belong, there is also the never ending belief from the teachers and administrators that Eastern as a school belongs.

“I believe in my colleagues and I believe that our building offers something really special for our community,” said Priority School Improvement Coordinator Leanne Weber, who prior to taking up her current position of overseeing the day-to-day improvement initiatives at Eastern, was a science teacher at the school for nine years.

“I believe we can make the turn around that’s needed for our community and these kids. In some ways, I’m excited for the challenge to make the improvements that our kids need … I think if we didn’t believe we could turn it around we wouldn’t be here. I firmly believe we can turn it around. I wouldn’t take this position if I didn’t think we could.”

For the educators and staff members of Eastern, this sense of belief is important. It’s important for the ultimate goal they all have of one day turning the school around. And according to many of those around the district, the current sense of optimism around the school is warranted.

“If you were to ask the teachers,” I think across the board they would say in the last couple of years, things have improved,” Botwinski said. “Are we where we want to be? Of course not … But people are feeling confident that the plan we have in place is going to make a difference for our kids. Whether it’s going to be enough? I don’t know, we’ll see. But I’m confident that it is as well.”

But to truly do it. To truly get Eastern off the list they’ve been on so long and to truly achieve what they’ve been working so hard on for the past few years, that would be a different accomplishment all-together.

“It would be one of the highlights of my life and my career (to turn Eastern around),” Pohl said. “To see these kids get put down, that’s how serious it is so that would be the highlight of my career … “

She pauses, thinking back to all the time and work she’s put into Eastern over the years. As principal of LEHS for 2.5 years and assistant principal for seven years before that, all the emotions of a decade’s worth of work begin to show.

“It’s really, really tough some days just pushing these kids, we have so many at risk kids. It would be really, really good to show the community that they’re worth more than this brick and mortar. They’re more than just a test.”

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