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A Staff That Embraces Change Sets Grand River Students Up for Success

Grand River Academy teachers successfully navigated this shift in education due to the ongoing challenges related to COVID-19 because they embraced it, wholeheartedly. Naturally, they prefer seeing the kids face to face, but teachers have adopted the awkward opportunity to continue.

Across the board, teachers redesigned their approach in order to ensure the needs of students were met because they care so deeply about their learning. “It’s a collaborative effort, and the teachers dove right in to understand the tools to be the best. Our students have the needs, and they have the tools, support, and technology needed to succeed,” Ralph Garza, principal at Grand River, shared.

Through adapting to change and having to pivot traditional teaching styles, Garza has witnessed leaders in the building grow and step forward in an impactful way. “I couldn't have predicted a better situation where teachers are shining, because they've been given responsibilities or opportunities to provide their feedback and strategically plan,” he explained.

Stepping up has also resulted in Garza working to ensure Grand River teachers are balanced. The teachers are the heartbeat of the building for him. Take for instance when you fly on an aircraft, you hear flight attendants share some variation of the oxygen mask rule, “Should the cabin lose pressure, oxygen masks will drop from the overhead area. Please place the mask over your own mouth and nose before assisting others.”

Garza takes the same approach when leading his staff.

“I need a mentally and physically healthy teacher to be able to help our kids. If they're not doing well, the school is not going to do well,” said Garza. “There's more than learning taking place here. There’s relationship building, and teachers are going above and beyond the call to action.”

In fact, the staff at Grand River has not gone unnoticed. Michigan’s Charter School Association (MAPSA) recently featured Jamie Iwashita, seventh- and eighth-grade Language arts teacher at Grand River, for the outstanding work she is doing with students.

Garza shared that Jamie caught his attention because of the amount of energy she brings to the classroom. Her lessons are very deep and engaging, he explained. “It’s not surface level teaching,” Garza said. “It's deep, reflective teaching.”

In addition to engaging with students, Jamie has high expectations for her students. Even if the student isn't performing well, she doesn't lower her expectations. “She lifts the student up by supporting them in their learning to meet those expectations,” Garza shared. “She's a great team player, a lead teacher, and always has a smile on her face. Students are truly happy in her classroom.”

Jamie is one example of many. Meet Rebecca Byers, first-grade teacher at Grand River, who worked to ensure that her students were still being recognized and supported during remote learning last spring.

While the COVID-19 has caused countless changes in the approach to education, Garza has worked to maintain a sense of normalcy by the continuation of his morning announcement videos and Lion Pride raffle. To infuse and practice Moral Focus virtues, even while school looks different, teachers hand out Lion Pride tickets to students who are demonstrating Moral Focus virtues and who are exhibiting a behavior that is above and beyond. Tickets are then entered into a weekly raffle where students can pick a prize.

Staying engaged and celebrating students is important for Garza as a leader.

“I even hop on their virtual lessons,” said Garza, as he explained ways they maintain normalcy at Grand River. “I’ll type ‘Hey guys, you're doing a great job. I'm very proud of you.’ Seeing my face, as small of an act as it is, brings some normalcy for students.”

COVID-19 did not stop Grand River from making advancements in the curriculum that is provided to students. This year they added a STEM elective, which focuses on four specific disciplines, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. “With my master’s degree being in curriculum instruction for math and science, I am a firm believer in science for our students,” said Garza.