“Every teacher loves to see students learning — that’s why we go into teaching.”

—Arelis Diaz, former principal

  • Grand Rapids, Michigan
  • Godwin Heights Public Schools
  • Grades K-4
  • Public
  • Urban
  • DTM awarded in 2009

School Overview

Awarded the Dispelling the Myth Award in 2009, North Godwin Elementary School continues to outperform the state.

North Godwin Elementary School is in the kind of community familiar to Michiganders — a once solidly working-class community fallen on hard times. The last big local employer, a GM stamping plant down the street, closed a few years ago, leaving 77 percent of the students — a mixture of white, Hispanic, African American, and a few Asian students — eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. Since then, the percentage has increased to almost 90 percent.

In many communities, academic achievement of students deteriorates along with the economy. But at North Godwin, just outside Grand Rapids, academic achievement improved even as the local economy has fallen apart.

So, for example, every single sixth-grader met state reading standards in the fall of 2009 (the year the school was honored with the Dispelling the Myth Award), compared with 88 percent in the state; 94 percent of North Godwin’s sixth-graders met state math standards, compared with 82 percent in the state; and 96 percent met state social studies standards, compared with 73 percent in the state. And it isn’t just about meeting standards but exceeding them; 56 percent of the low-income third-grade students at North Godwin exceeded standards in math, compared with only 37 percent of low-income third-graders in the rest of the state.

The principal who led much of the school’s initial improvement, Arelis Diaz, said that North Godwin’s success happens because the teachers work hard and hold all students to high standards. “When I first started,” Diaz says, “it was about 50-50 of people willing to try anything and resistors.” Resistors, Diaz said, “feel sorry for [students] rather than helping them.”

Diaz said that once teachers see that all students can learn at high levels, “it transforms them to the core.”

“Every teacher loves to see students learning — that’s why we go into teaching,” she added. “And when it was happening at such a consistent level throughout the building, it was exciting.”

Since the school won the Dispelling the Myth Award, the district has been under financial pressure and has combined elementary schools. North Godwin Elementary did not escape change. After working as assistant superintendent for the district, Diaz left to work for the Michigan-based Kellogg Foundation. Bill Fetterhoff, who’d succeeded her as principal at North Godwin, took her place as assistant superintendent and currently serves as superintendent of the district, and Mary Lang is now principal. Through all of that, student achievement has remained high. For example, 84 percent of the school’s fourth-graders met state reading standards in 2013 compared with 68 percent in the state; 74 percent of the fourth-graders met state math standards compared with 45 percent in the rest of the state.

“We muddle our way through,” was Lang’s Midwestern understatement.

One major change is that North Godwin has become a community school, meaning that the school now has a dedicated community school coordinator, an onsite clinician, and a Department of Human Services caseworker who all collaborate with the school to ensure that all students have their physical and emotional needs met and are in school all day every day. “It’s been a welcome addition that takes some things off my plate and provides needed services for our families,” Lang said.

Updated 2013