Once Failing MI Elementary Mounts Big Turnaround

May 22, 2018

Everyone loves a tale of redemption.  The 2016 Cubs.  The 2018 Loyola men’s basketball team.  Of course, comeback stories don’t just happen in sports...or in Chicago!  This one takes place on our side of the lake, at an elementary school in a northern Michigan tourist town.   You might call this one “The Kenwood Comeback.”


You can describe Cadillac, Michigan in two words.  Woods and water.

Towering pines nestle the shores of two large lakes.  Come Memorial Day weekend, Cadillac will come alive with fishers, boaters and hikers.  The very picture of a summertime dream.

The glam rock band KISS once played here, at the high school’s 1975 homecoming.  There’s a monument to the moment near the school. 

And just down the road sits Kenwood Elementary.

An unwelcome distinction

Four years ago, Kelly Buckmaster heard the words no principal ever wants to hear.  The state called Kenwood a “priority school” after its overall performance ranked in just the second percentile of all schools in the state.

“It’s alarming,” says Buckmaster.  “No one wants to be working at the bottom performing school in Michigan.” 

The students were stressed out.  Many had disciplinary issues.  Kenwood had a reputation in the community.

That’s when Emily Bender arrived.  She’s the school counselor.

“It was like, ‘oh, good luck at Kenwood,’ and ‘you’re going to have your hands full at Kenwood,’” Bender recalls.  “So, right away I had a soft spot in my heart for the kids here and the staff here...and I could see that they wanted what was best.”  

What Kenwood needed was resources.   Wexford County is one of the poorest counties in Michigan. The average household income here is just over $40,000 per year.  About 70% of Kenwood students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Bender noticed Kenwood was the only one of Cadillac’s four elementary schools without a mentoring program.  So she reached out to some local churches, who donated clothes, money and some quality one-on-one time.  One even built the kids some new playground equipment.

Re-tooling for success

Meanwhile, the teachers re-committed to strong academic results.  They developed small group instruction tailored to individual students.  They created checkpoints along the way.   They also built classrooms focused on their students’ achievements, rather than their own agendas.

“A teacher-centered classroom is one where the teacher is making their plans and they’re covering curriculum and they feel as though that’s what the job is,” explains Buckmaster.  “When you have a student-centered classroom, you assess, did they get what I wanted them to learn, did they learn it, and if they didn’t...what do I do about it then.”  

Kenwood made strong strides in reading and math.  Within two years, the school climbed from the number two percentile to 59th.  Today, Kenwood students far outpace the state average for students in poverty.

The problems haven’t gone away completely, though.  Counselor Emily Bender says one of the biggest issues is attendance.

“There’s a lot of misconceptions that kids are like, cutting and pasting all day and who cares if they miss school one day a week,” she says.  “We know the reality of that is they’re doing really important academic things.  So, a kid that’s missing one day of school a week or even a couple days a month, that’s really impactful in the long run when you look at all the instruction they’re missing.” 

Troy Finstrom is part of the Kenwood recipe.  He started off four years ago as a classroom teacher.  His job title now: “success worker.”

“It’s an ‘everything’ job,” he laughs.

Finstrom works with behaviorally challenged kids.  He’s a Sherpa on their journey through life’s lessons, like perseverance and accepting failure.

“A lot of times kids come in, and they’re told: ‘oh, you’re the best.  You’re the greatest, you’re awesome.’” Finstrom says. “And they don’t ever hear like, ‘yeah, we didn’t do our best on this one; we need to try a little harder,’ or, ‘yep; we weren’t picked first.’  That’s life.  How do you accept it?  How do you realize it’s not an attack on me, it’s not somebody putting me down...and just developing resilience.” 

Finstrom can see the changes in behavior.  There was a time, he says, when discipline problems prevented Kenwood from holding all school assemblies.  Now, they happen every Friday.

“To me, that’s the biggest tell-tale overall sign of our turnaround is that we can have our kids together, celebrating and acknowledging each other and really focusing more on what we can do, instead of what we can’t,” he says.

Kenwood Elementary is still a work in progress.  But some of the techniques tried here are starting to catch on in a few other schools in the district. 

With the numbers back in the black, the question is, can Cadillac take its brand on the road to rev up the engines of schools across the state of Michigan.