Boyne Falls Public School students and staff rolled out the kid-painted, green-and-white school banner to warmly welcome a representative from the Michigan Department of Education on March 4 as part of MDE’s mission to visit every public school district throughout the state.
The directive came two years ago from Brian Whiston, the late State Superintendent of Public Instruction, as part of his “Top 10 in 10” initiative.
Whiston instructed MDE Department Directors to visit at least 10 districts a year of the state’s approx. 900 districts, Intermediate School Districts and Public School Academies.
Since Whiston’s unexpected passing last year, his initiative has been carried on by his colleagues, including Jan Weckstein, Assistant Director of Special Education, who chose to visit Boyne Falls earlier this week. The visitations are ongoing until each one in the state has had a visit.
“These visitations came about (to help MDE) improve customer service for our local education agencies. That includes highlighting and celebrating the great things happening in our local schools and finding out what the MDE can do for our local districts,” Weckstein said.
Weckstein was impressed with what she called many “firsts” at Boyne Falls among her district tours – such as the farm-to-table food program – as she toured with Superintendent and Principal of five years, Cynthia Pineda, and Student Success Advisor, Brooke Fenske. Pineda and Fenske spent several hours with Weckstein, sharing many points of pride that filled the morning and early afternoon.
“What impressed me the most was the dedication and commitment from the superintendent, staff, students, families and community members. I was wowed with the numerous innovative programs and services taking place in all facets of education,” Weckstein said.
There is a theme of high expectations for students, data-informed and data-driven practices, building incredible relationships and finding ways to extend opportunities for students and families beyond traditional school hours.
Weckstein also shared her enthusiasm for seeing children throughout the school engaged in classroom activities in a peaceful environment that includes essential oil diffusers, sensory rooms and quiet corners intended to provide students with options for dealing with emotional and social pressures.
“The focus in Boyne Falls is truly on the ‘whole child,’ and there are numerous, innovative things in place in the district and every classroom that is making that happen,” she said. “There is a family feel in the building, one of ‘we are all in this together.’”
From the start of the tour, the family atmosphere is one point that Pineda emphasized in this district of approx. 200 students. All K-12 grades are housed in one building; elementary, middle and high school are located in separate wings.
There is a central gym, media center and cafeteria. Teachers have longevity; several have been with the district for more than 30 years, many more for 20+.
“I tell my staff that we are small enough that there is no reason that each of our families shouldn’t get our personal attention,” Pineda said.
Needs: Food program flexibility, universal preschool for 3-year-olds
Because of the emphasis MDE staff have placed on learning about the specific needs of districts during these statewide tours, Pineda noted two areas where MDE could provide assistance to Boyne Falls: food program flexibility for families and universal preschool funding for 3-year-olds.
Pineda explained that with the tough winter this year, and the predictability of snow days ahead of time due to better forecasting, Boyne Falls would like the ability to send food home with students in need the day before they anticipate a school closure.
Many families rely on the school for two meals a day for their children; 65 percent of families here qualify for free or reduced lunch. School closures mean some children might go hungry.
Currently, the state requires that children “congregate” and consume food in communal areas to receive funding, preventing districts like Boyne Falls from packaging meals to send home. “We want to make a plea to the state to let us do this for our families,” Pineda said.
This was one of the “first” such request for Weckstein, who was clearly touched by the commitment to families. “Typically I hear about funding, but I have not heard a request like this before,” she told Pineda.
When it comes to state funding of preschool, Pineda said that universal preschool for 3-year-olds would be another wish-list item.
When she started in the superintendent role, Pineda and the Board of Education established the district’s first preschool program for 3 and 4 year olds, which has continued to grow as it fills a need in the working-class community. The tuition-based, five-star rated program has helped these youngsters enter kindergarten more prepared, Pineda said. It is also helping the district retain families and attract new ones. A universally funded program for 3-year-olds would assist more families on tight budgets and prepare young ones for their schooling years ahead.
Enviable edibles: A food program second to none
Weckstein was also impressed with the district’s food service program, which is handled in-house under the leadership of Chef Nathan Bates.
On this particular day, and every day, student meal trays include fresh salads and vegetables prepared using different methods and seasonings.
Today’s entrée featured grilled chicken breast with a light sauce, grilled fresh veggies and brown rice, plus fresh milk or fruit-infused water, and plenty of bright fruits in huge serving bowls for the taking.
“We know that we have a lot of kids who have faced food insecurities, and we know that we need to meet their nutritional needs before we ask them to perform in the classroom. They have to trust us and have confidence in us that we will help them,” Pineda said.
Chef Nathan is up early to cut fresh vegetables and fruit each day, pausing only to serve a healthy breakfast to arriving students, and then picking back up to prep lunch.
Under his guidance, students also are committed to caring for the environment, by using non-disposable utensils, scraping food waste into compost bins, and using glassware for milk (from a large central milk unit, known as “The Cow”) or water.
“These are great, real life skills to learn,” Weckstein noted.
The students also have an “Eat Nicely” policy, which includes a “No Thank You” bite, where they are encouraged to try new foods, in particular vegetables prepared in new ways, like romanesco.
Fresh flowers grace tables in the non-winter months and a functioning hoophouse out back is harvested for its abundance each summer and fall; students begin a cabbage growing contest before they leave for summer break.
“Chef Nathan has worked so hard to build relationships with local farmers, and to build our food program into what it has become – and our students directly benefit,” Pineda said.
Weckstein noted this philosophy and approach to food service as being another “first” among the districts she’s visited. “I can’t wait to share this with my colleagues when I return to Lansing,” she told Pineda.
Sharing with MDE
Weckstein said she and the other MDE staff who visit schools convene monthly and the school tours are one topic of discussion; they brainstorm how the state might be able to assist districts with concerns and needs, like those expressed by Pineda.
“From my Boyne Falls visit, I will take back with me that the focus is truly on the whole child, working collaboratively together, making best-practice decisions and finding ways to make something positive happen for kids and improving student achievement. I took many notes and am excited to share some of the awesome programs in place.”
She said the school staff and the environment they’ve created demonstrate an understanding of student needs and the community’s needs, including the numerous partnerships and conscientious allocation of resources.
“Boyne Falls Public Schools is a warm, inspiring and inviting environment,” Weckstein said. “Everyone is working together to keep students on track academically and provide opportunities for the students themselves to be engaged in taking ownership of their own education. Boyne Falls Public Schools should be proud of their focus and the inspiring job they are doing for children and families.”