Bryan Kay has magic in Traverse Heights
Throughout his career in education, Bryan Kay has sought to improve student performance and enthusiasm. He believes that if children enjoy coming to school, they will perform better. So when he was appointed principal of Traverse Heights Elementary School in the fall of 2020, he wanted to get started. “I have a passion for helping children in difficult situations,” he says.
Things aren’t much more difficult than what he got into in Traverse Heights. The school has historically had one of the largest at-risk student populations in public schools in the Traverse City area. The fact that Kay arrived at the post in the midst of the pandemic made matters worse.
He says that during that first year, he found that the students felt disconnected from each other and from the school. Some felt they had no place in school at all.
So this year he decided to implement a new curriculum to help build excitement throughout the school, for all grade levels, all students, all teachers and staff – and he turned to Harry Potter for inspiration.
Kay and the staff saw how Hogwarts students in Potter’s world were divided into houses, where all ages would come together as one team, and believed that such an approach would be beneficial for the school. “A lot of staff love Harry Potter,” Kay says.
So, last spring, the staff got together and discussed how such an approach would look like in Traverse Heights. “The staff built the system together, what it would be and what it would represent,” says Kay.
As in the Harry Potter books, the houses are all multi-age, in this case from Kindergarten to 5th grade. Throughout their stay at Traverse Heights, students will belong to the same house, which is named after the Great Lakes.
The first week of school, students and staff gathered on the soccer field behind the school to find out which house they would be in. They were sorted in their house using sealed envelopes (no magic sorting hat, unfortunately). The staff encouraged the students as they were sorted, as did the students when new members joined their house.
Students earn points for a number of positive actions and activities, just like in books. Teachers can reward them whenever they observe students demonstrating safe, respectful, or otherwise good behavior, such as cleaning up a space in the cafeteria or helping another student.
Kay foresees that the older students will mentor the younger ones in their house. He says that in this way, the students will depend on each other and not worry about fitting in, but will see the school as a place they want to be. “It’s teacher-to-student and student-to-student, so learning can happen. “
Each month, the student with the most individual points will receive a scooter and helmet donated by the school’s PTO, and one hour of bowling for the student’s family provided by Incredible Mo’s. Houses will also be recognized, with the house with the most points having its flag flying above the school. Special assemblies will reward the house champion at the end of each semester and at the end of the school year.
Behind all of this is the emphasis on positive student engagement with each other and with staff. Kay believes it will improve student performance as well, as student engagement, mentoring, and academics are intertwined. “The overall goal… is to create connections and relationships to pave the way for better learning. It’s hard to learn if (the students) feel like they don’t belong, ”Kay says. “It’s fun, but everyone has to work hard and try hard, (then) celebrate success.”
Kay previously taught at Blair Elementary School, another school with a large population of students from difficult circumstances. In fact, he and his wife ended up getting side-by-side teaching positions with Blair. “I only worked in at-risk schools,” he says, going back to his days teaching in Denver before returning to his home country.
Although the program has only been around for a month so far, Kay is excited about its impact on the school. “We want to strengthen the pride of the school,” he says.
And his boss agrees: Superintendent Dr. John VanWagoner tells The Ticker, “Bryan has done a tremendous job bringing innovative ideas and highlights to students over the past two years. We are just grateful to have him as the head of this building. “
Pictured: Kay, with Student of the Month Harper Smith, who earned the most House Points for September.