BLANCHARD — Kyle Guerrant didn’t know what to expect as he drove the Isabella-Montcalm county line toward Montabella Community Schools.
He almost certainly didn’t expect to find students working to ward off zombies amid the cornfields and gravel roads.
Guerrant, the deputy superintendent for the Michigan Department of Education (MDE), visited the Blanchard area Tuesday afternoon to tour Montabella schools, including the elementary school where students were building “zombie retention facilities” as part of a cross curricular class assignment involving writing, social studies and mathematics.
“Zombies are all the rage,” Guerrant joked with students. “Now we know where to go if a zombie apocalypse happens.”
Guerrant’s visit to Montabella was part of a widespread goal by the MDE to visit a variety of schools throughout Michigan. By the end of this school year, MDE officials hope to have visited about 300 schools. In the span of three years, they hope to have visited every school district in the state.
“We want to see all the great things schools are doing to support student achievement, both in the classroom, as well as other supports schools are providing to help their students be career and college ready, and we want share those successes with other districts,” Guerrant said. “Many times we’re asked by other districts for ideas and strategies that are working for other districts that are similar, and this will help us, and districts to better accomplish that knowledge sharing. We’re beginning to build a best practices website that will be available to all schools, so if someone is looking to expand their early childhood programs, or CTE offerings, they’ll be able to use this website to find strategies, and contact to schools who are already doing the work and could serve as a mentor to them moving forward.”
During Guerrant’s tour of Montabella, he visited classes in the elementary, middle school and high school and met with Superintendent Shelly Millis, Middle/High School Principal Shane Riley and Elementary School Principal Michael Moore. The elementary school and middle school/high school are located just a short walk from each other on the same campus. About 400 students attend the elementary school and about 390 students attend the seventh through 12th grade complex.
Millis explained some of the challenges of being a school district in a rural area, where Bandit Industries in Remus and Mobark in Winn — both manufacturers of wood processing equipment — and Wildlife Gallery custom taxidermy studio in Blanchard are the primary employers of students’ parents.
Moore added that the main challenges of leading an elementary school is the lack of parental involvement, as well as teachers finding creative approaches to education. About 70 percent of elementary students are on the school’s free or reduced lunch program.
Millis showed Guerrant the elementary school’s preschool classroom (the quietest part of the tour, as the children were all napping). She explained the school district’s Peer To Peer program, which helps high school students connect with disabled students for classroom support. Millis also shared some of her wish list items, such as the need for an onsite doctor and dentist for students whose parents don’t have ready access to transportation.
Guerrant took note of Montabella’s focus on access and use of technology in the classroom — including Chromebooks — noting the district is “very close” to being 1-to-1 computing compliant. He was also impressed by student and staff engagement.
“Whether it was the zombie apocalypse, Spanish class at the high school or the senior project portfolios, it was clear students were engaged and active in their learning which is so important,” he said. “The relationships teachers and administers had with students — both principals and the superintendent knew so many of their students, what they were working on and those children knew them as well, coming up and chatting with them — there is a lot of research on how big an impact a caring adult has on student achievement.”