By Katie Dudlets
The Meridian Times Staff Reporter
HASLETT — Teachers at Haslett High School will go to any length to assure that the students in their classrooms are engaged and have the highest potential of meeting academic success.
“I do a lot of pop culture references. I have Bart Simpson in the room for Simpson’s Rule in [calculus],” said Haslett High School teacher and Michigan Teacher of the Year recipient Kevin Tobe, pointing at a drawing of the popular cartoon character next to his math notes. “I’ve even convinced my classes that I love Kesha.”
With a graduation rate over 10 percent higher than the national average and a dropout rate of less than 5 percent, Haslett High School’s Principal Bart Wegenke accredits the school’s academic success to student engagement.
“One of the expectations here is 100 percent engagement of students 100 percent of the time,” said Wegenke. “I never want classrooms where kids are taking a siesta or kids are on the sidelines. Our kids are in the game 100 percent of the time.”
Although some students did feel a particular disconnect, 80 percent of Haslett High School’s teachers have been cited as being highly effective, which is nearly double that statewide.
Wegenke said this is due to the time spent over the last six or seven years on core instruction.
“Core instruction is how teachers teach,” said Wegenke. “We cohere around certain expectations. If you were to walk into classrooms, you’re going to see that the day’s schedule and objectives are clearly listed on the board. When the bell rings, teachers are going to begin teaching and kids are going to begin learning.”
For teachers like Tobe and Charlie Otlewski, a social studies teacher and football coach at HHS, sometimes that means taking on different roles in the classroom.
“My objective is to get people interested in social studies in some aspect,” said Otlewski. “I have to be as much of an entertainer in some respects, as I am anything else.”
Current 11th-grader Donavin Vonhatten said the particular attention Haslett’s teachers give to students in the classroom are a large part of his academic success.
“Any teachers that I’ve had have tried their best to keep us motivated and keep us getting into the work,” said Vonhatten. “They make it so we can excel.”
Former student Hannah Beebe, who graduated in 2015, said the teachers she had in high school have positively influenced her transition to Michigan State University.
“The teachers care,” said Beebe. “I think most of them genuinely want to see you succeed and if you needed help, they were more than willing to spend time with you after class, during lunch or after school.”
Otlewski said that students’ academic success is grounded in large part in the unity of the school’s staff.
“We’ve got everybody here pulling in the same direction,” said Otlewski. “We’re all trying to help kids and we’re all trying to get them to be successful.”
Otlewski also said that methods will vary based on the student, leading to a different experience for each individual.
“It’s going to look different for certain kids,” said Otlewski, “because everybody’s different and everybody learns different. The paths are different.”
The methods used in the classroom do not benefit every student however. Anna Radway, who graduated from Haslett High in 2015, said that while she felt prepared for college, she did not find any of the teachers to be particularly helpful.
“I don’t think any teachers made a significant impact on my education,” said Radway. “Some were really cool, and fun to have, but they didn’t motivate me to work harder.”
Wegenke said class often begins with a warm up on the overhead for students to engage in, like an SAT question. He also said that teachers do not lecture for more than 10 to 12 minutes without transitioning into a small formative assessment or an engagement strategy, like having the students discuss the current topic with a partner.
“What I don’t want in the end is day in and day out I have somebody that’s just spewing out content,” said Wegenke.
The goal of 100 percent student engagement is not solely within the classroom, but for engagement in school in general.
“Obviously [our teachers’] primary responsibilities are during the day, during the five or six hours that they teach,” said Wegenke.
Outside of that, teachers are members of various committees, are coaches and are sponsors of clubs.
“From robotics club to ukulele club to feminism club to Black Student Union to our diversity club,” said Wegenke, “we probably have 40 to 50 clubs outside the school day. Every one of those clubs is connected to one of our staff members, and that’s all voluntary.”
Beebe said Tobe in particular, who has coached for various varsity sports teams, been involved in coaching the staff and has served as a math department chair on top of his normal workload, went above and beyond his job when she had him her junior and senior year.
“Mr. Tobe is an excellent math teacher,” said Beebe. “He is also an excellent person. He’s probably the most genuine teacher I’ve ever had and he wanted us to leave Haslett High School with more than just a diploma. He was always rooting for us.”
Tobe said that teaching is a process of adaptation, with the aim of putting students in a place where they can succeed.
“You’re teaching the students, but you’ve got to be a lifelong learner,” said Tobe. “You’ve got to adapt to using technology and to different curriculum standards that come through. I set high expectations for myself and if I have that student that’s struggling, I take it personally. I want to make sure that everybody in my class succeeds.”
Tobe said his job is made easier by a community that genuinely values education.
“Basically I come in everyday and teach a subject that I like teaching, work with kids that really want to be here, and I can help them reach their goals and find their way through. The biggest reward for me is seeing, five or ten years down the road, that kid that comes back and says, ‘My experience here was a good one, and maybe it wasn’t because of math, but overall I was well prepared for life and well prepared for college and well prepared for my career.’”