By Erica Marra
The Meridian Times Staff Reporter
OKEMOS — After being rated the 10th-best high school in the state of Michigan by U.S. News & World Report in 2015, Okemos High School is striving to continue their high rankings into the current year.
The U.S. News & World Report base their yearly rankings off of factors including student-to-teacher ratios, college readiness, and proficiency in mathematics and reading. By earning high numbers across the board, Okemos received the U.S. News & World Report’s “Gold Medal” award, which is given only to the top 500 schools in the country based on highest college readiness.
In order to sustain classroom success in the 2015-2016 school year, Okemos High School English teacher Laura Ross said that the school implemented new plans and policies to increase student comprehension and engagement.
“We’re working really hard to reach all segments of our student body,” Ross said. “We’ve started using instructional coaches so we work as teams of teachers. Also, we’ve gone one-to-one with students and technology, so each student has their own school-issued laptop.”
Even so, Ross said she believes that the school’s main source of future success is rooted more so in the culture of Okemos High than in specific projects.
“This award is really just a matter of coming back to our expectations of ourselves and our district,” Ross said. “Regardless of what we win, we just have certain standards that we meet here. It’s not as though it’s not cause for celebration, we just pride ourselves on doing well.”
According to Okemos High School parent Kim Matusz, scholastic excellence has been a common element of the district for years.
“If my memory serves me well, in 1998 when we first moved into the Okemos district, the high school was ranked number two in the state, mostly due to the music program,” she said. “We were attracting parents from all over the state with students who wanted to major in the musical arts.”
Eventually, Matusz said, the high school expanded and improved more departments, which led to increased prosperity for the district.
“Over the years, I’ve noticed the academic offerings have improved and the school offers more advanced level coursework. I think it’s attracting higher achievers to the district and increasing our overall GPAs and graduation rates,” Matusz said.
But how exactly has Okemos continued such achievement for nearly two decades? Joshua Cowen, Associate Professor within Michigan State University’s Department of Educational Administration, said that Okemos has the upper hand in scholastic decision-making compared to other schools due to sufficient funding.
“The main things schools like Okemos have to do to continue performing well are to keep effective teachers in the classroom and figure out ways to dismiss teachers that aren’t effective,” Cowen said. “They also have to maintain adequate funding levels, which is sometimes easier said than done, but not a problem for Okemos.”
According to a 2013 study by the U.S. Census Bureau, Okemos residents earn up to nearly $15,000 more than the average Michigander. Also, 70 percent of Okemos residents have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, which is nearly triple the Michigan average of 25.9 percent. Cowen finds a direct correlation between this data and the success of Okemos High School.
“We know that 60 percent of differences in student outcomes are driven by family background,” Cowen said. What I mean by that is the award is great for Okemos and they should be proud of themselves and their teachers, but let’s be honest. They’ve got a relatively advantaged population of kids. The gaps between haves and have-nots is smaller in some places, and that includes Okemos.”