Strive for Less than Five

This article appeared in Near North Now and is being shared across NPS social media outlets.

Guest Article: Strive for Less than Five


Guest Article: Strive for Less than Five
By Dr. Peggy A.  Mathis, Superintendent Newaygo Public Schools

​“We cannot get our workers to show up to work on time.”
“I am concerned about our younger generation and their work ethic.”
“What are we going to do about finding employees who will be dedicated to show up when they are scheduled?

These are three statements shared by local employers directly with high school administrators and me on separate occasions in various encounters last school year. Coincidentally, our administrative team had been having some of the same conversations. We did an in-depth data analysis of our attendance and behavior data through our PBIS program. (PBIS stands for Positive Behavior Interventions and Support). When we analyzed the types of discipline issues that occur in our school buildings, a statistical category that kept rising to the top was that our student attendance data was concerning.

Examine the following:


​If students aren’t present in school, for any reason, teachers cannot teach and students cannot learn.

Similar to employers who may feel there is lost productivity when employees are absent, our students and teachers experience an equal phenomenon when students are absent. Not only does the student lose out when they are absent from school, but at some point, other students may lose out because the teacher needs to focus on “catching that student up” instead of working with all kids. This is not always a problem but the potential is there for a possible disruption or loss of learning.

Sitting back and lamenting these facts and doing nothing was not an option. Our high school administrative team did some research and got permission to copy a program in another school district. Hence, Strive for Less than Five was born here in Newaygo.

Strive for Less than Five is a positive attendance awareness campaign that has been presented to the staff, the Newaygo City Council, and some area businesses. We want all of our students to work toward minimizing absences from school. We want our students to STRIVE FOR LESS THAN 5 absences per semester for any reason. We know there will be some exceptions with students who have a chronic condition and we will always work to assist students with special circumstances and/or have a tough time with repeated physical illnesses. We know students may occasionally have doctor, dentist, or orthodontic appointments. We know family emergencies come up. We just want to minimize that amount of time lost from school and develop positive habits early and often.

Please don’t confuse this and think that we want kids coming to school who are sick and/or have a fever, for example. We want our students to learn that unless there is a special circumstance, they need to be in school every day, all day. Their learning and others depends on it!

Many adults have jobs. They are expected to show up every day to work. Students have a job. Their #1 job is school. They are expected to show up every day to their job. When adults or students don’t show up for their job, something is lost. School is not just about academics. School is about developing employability skills. Based on what local employers told us, we need to develop a key employability skill of regular, positive attendance. Please help us help all kids Strive for Less Than Five. Encourage students to get to school every day, for the full day, and on time.  If every adult in our community sends this message, our kids will learn that is important. Our future depends on it.

Changes in H.S. Graduation Requirements

We’ve come full circle and many educators predicted it.
In 2006, the Michigan Merit Curriculum was signed into law and at the time was one of the most comprehensive sets of high school graduation requirements in our country.  The thought was that everyone needs post-secondary education and/or training, which I believe to still hold true. In the message, however, was that all kids need to “go to college” and take college prep courses. Some will contend that this wasn’t the intended message but that is what our kids heard. As a result, the perception(s) of going into the skilled trades soured with students. Policy-makers under the guise of “let’s make everything more rigorous” were trying to make all students fit into a cookie-cutter curriculum. Some educators supported this change but many did not.

When this law was passed, many educators asked:
What about the arts (music, visual arts, etc.)?
What about the exploration of other subjects (like business courses, psychology, etc.)?
What about students getting the opportunity to discover what they like and/or are good at?
What about the practical, hands-on skill-based courses students need?
What about Career and Technical Education?

While the MMC didn’t preclude students from taking any of these courses, the fact that so many other courses were required strictly narrowed the scope and sequence of what students could realistically fit into a 4 year high school career.  At the time, I was a high school principal and I witnessed students agonizing over the fact that they couldn’t be in band and go to the vocational/technical center. I worked with students who struggled in Algebra II or a foreign language course when they wanted to be in an automotive or welding class. I counseled students who were required to take a tough college prep course like chemistry when their passion was in debate and forensics.

Choices were taken from students and the culture of high-stakes testing was in full force then and still is now.

Fast forward a decade, and now here we are listening to Governor Snyder propose expanding and strengthening career technical education. In a June 26 press release, the Governor stated, “We all have an important role in making sure every student has the opportunity to explore multiple pathways to a career that matches their interests and goals.”

In 11 short years, we have come full circle. The recent statements from TED (Talent and Economic Development), MDE, and the Governor’s office on June 26, is full of the same ideas that educators were concerned about when the MMC was forced upon students in 2006. Many of us educators thought back then what now the Governor is saying; that graduation rules need to be flexible to boost career education.

Imagine the possibilities, if policy-makers listened to educators in the first place? I realize that in any venture, the pendulum naturally swings, but it is frustrating to be a part of an educational system when educator’s voices are largely ignored. What has happened in the trades and other industries with the skilled worker shortages was forecasted by educators years ago when the MMC was implemented. We’ve come full circle and many educators predicted it.

The next time your legislator wants to make a change to something in the educational system, encourage them to ask an educator. Educators really do have a good sense of what our students need and deserve and most are in it for the long haul. They have seen the consequences of “pendulum swings” and have experiences to draw upon. These opinions might just be more suitable for decision-making than term-limited legislators that want to do something in the short term.



I just kept hoping that Ms. DeVos would not be confirmed. Perhaps it was the optimist in me thinking that good will prevail. Now it looks to be certain that she will the new Education Secretary. So many emotions right now and I have stayed relatively silent. I can’t do that any longer.  So here are some random thoughts.

I have given my life to this thing we call “public education.”
I believe in public education.
I know it works.
It is the foundation of our democracy.
It is the baseline for the American Dream.
While Ms. DeVos might be a nice person (I don’t know her personally), I do not believe for one second that she is qualified to be in charge of anything to do with public education.

I invite Ms. DeVos to come to the Newaygo Public School District.

See our students who have hopes and dreams for their future.
See our staff working day and night so they can share their passion with students.
See our families working to support their students while laboring hard and long hours to make ends meet.

Middle America has been a steady place to raise families and send children to public schools.
Education is not meant for corporate America to make money off taxpayer dollars.

I worry about the future of education.
I want our teachers and staff to have adequate resources to continue to do the great things that they do for our kids.
I want our staff to know that what they do really matters, despite what the reformers and profiteers might say.

I have given my life to this thing we call “public education.”  I cannot and will not give up. I ask every citizen who believes in public education to not give up. We can’t. Our children deserve better.


Thanksgiving can be a time for reflection.  I know I don’t thank the people here at NPS enough but here goes…

At NPS, I am thankful for:

Dedicated teachers who work to meet all of our students’ needs under incredible pressure and with minimal resources.

Committed classroom aides who consistently get asked to do many of the “other” things to meet the needs of students, and do so with smiles on their faces.

Loyal bus drivers who have a very difficult job and work to make each trip to and from school brighter (and safe) for students.

Cherished secretaries who stay calm and try to please everyone in the midst of whirlwind activity (on some days) in the school offices.

Skilled principals and directors that support all of the students, families, and staff and work to make decisions that are the best for kids.

Other support personnel (tech, academic interventionists, behavior specialists, etc.) that work very hard behind the scenes to make sure our students have the best chance for success.

Dependable board members that want every student to reach his/her full potential and to see this school district on a path to greatness.

Last but not least, I am thankful for the students, families, and residents of this great school district. They are truly what makes Newaygo special!


I appreciate teachers

May 2-6 is Teacher Appreciation Week. As a result, I take a few moments to reflect on what teachers do for society. When I was growing up I was lucky to have good teachers and role models and in fact some of my teachers were influential in my decision to pursue education for my career. I had teachers that were inspiring and cared deeply for students. Now with that being said, did I always like or appreciate what teachers demanded of me? Of course not. Thankfully, I had parents who expected me to do what teachers asked and if I didn’t like it, they would “side” with the teachers. (Yes, admittedly I might not have been the “perfect” student!)  I was raised in a family where you were expected to put your nose to the grindstone, work hard, and don’t complain.  If I didn’t like something, I was expected to deal with it (or ‘suck it up’ in today’s terms).  Little did I know, that kind of background and my experiences with “tough” teachers or teachers that I didn’t particularly care for would ultimately benefit me later in life.

Because teaching is a series of human interactions, the teaching and learning process is not simple or easy. There are challenges, disagreements, and lessons that need to be learned by our youth. There are times when students “fight” learning and/or resist what teachers try to get out of them.  Thankfully, the moments of learning and positive interactions outweigh the struggles. I know that the teachers I have worked with in the past and currently work with now make incredible sacrifices because they are doing what they feel called to do; work with our youth to develop good citizens.  And for that, I have deep gratitude for them.

Appreciation is a beautiful thing. Take a moment this week to thank a teacher. Maybe it is a teacher you had when you were growing up. It might even be the teacher that was “tough” on you. Or maybe it’s the teachers that showed incredible care and concern for you. Perhaps it is a teacher that has influenced or gone the extra mile for your son or daughter.  It might be the teacher that continues to believe in and care for the person who doesn’t believe in his/herself.  It could possibly be the teacher that was an inspiration to you or your son or daughter. Just remember that appreciation doesn’t cost a dime. It can be a simple spoken “thank you,” a quick note or email, or a sincere voicemail message. We are fortunate at Newaygo Public Schools to have a dedicated group of talented teachers. Take a moment to tell them they are appreciated!


Tales From Students When There is No Snow Day

As a Superintendent in a smaller-sized district, I enjoy the privilege of getting to know a few students on a more personal level than perhaps those Superintendents who work in larger districts (part of the reason why I love where I work!). As a result, when the snow falls, but it is not enough to warrant a snow day, I take a fair amount of good-humored back and forth kidding from some students if I happen to be in the buildings that day. Tuesday, January 12, was one of those days. When I saw that the storm missed Newaygo County and over 200 schools were closed by the time we decided to stay open, I readied myself for the usual jokes, questions, and comments of a disappointed nature from students who were saddened that they had school that day and no snow day.

Here’s how one encounter went:
Student (in the high school):  Where is Dr. Mathis? I need to talk to her!
Me (about an hour after school started):  Hey, I heard you were looking for me this morning.
Student:  Why am I in school today? (Insert indignant face emoji here.)
Me:  Because you need to get an education to get smarter.
Student:  My head is big enough already!  (Obviously this student has no problem with self-confidence!)

Here’s another encounter that occurred at one of the elementary schools:
Student:  Hey Ms. Mathis, my Dad and Uncle Duane were going to spin out in your driveway this morning (apparently to try to convince me to cancel school).
Me:  Wow, really?
Student:  Yes, and we thought about spraying a hose on your house so you’d think it was all iced over!  (This student knows me well enough to joke around with me and he had a huge grin on his face.)

I take these decisions very seriously because the safety of our students is my top priority. Perhaps my point here is that even under tense circumstances when decisions need to be made with snow days or cancelling school events, NPS students can feel comfortable enough to share their opinion(s) with me. They can also learn that even though things don’t always turn out as they had hoped, honest (and sometimes jovial) give and take conversations can be productive.

We have several more weeks of winter and you can be assured that we will work to make decisions to keep students safe. Parents can help us by remembering to take it slow when driving, using caution around our buses loading and unloading students, and that patience is essential! 


Helping Our Young Students to Become Good Citizens


Over the last several years, schools have faced difficult decisions when examining available resources and increased operational costs. Our funding sources are varied but one revenue source that has increased is that of Section 31a At-Risk funding. Section 31a of the State School Aid Act provides funding to eligible districts for instructional and pupil support services who meet the at-risk identification characteristics specified in the legislation.*

Schools opt to use these funds in a variety of ways and in the past, NPS has used these dollars to fund counseling positions, English Language Learner support, and some other areas. We will continue to do this, but due to the fact that we have an increase in this funding, we are able to add two positions. One will be an Elementary School Behavioral Intervention Specialist and the other will be a Middle School Behavioral Intervention Specialist. This concept is not new. During the 2012-2013 school year when we had principals working in two buildings, we had a Behavioral Intervention Specialist working at the elementary schools to assist Mr. Bush there.

We are grateful for this funding and are excited to be able to provide additional support to students and families as our kids are required to continuously meet higher academic expectations. These people will work with students, teachers, families, and administration to provide additional support for students who need the assistance. I once saw this quote and perhaps this can lend some insight.
“If a child doesn’t know how to read, we teach.”
“If a child doesn’t know how to swim, we teach.
“If a child doesn’t know how to multiply, we teach.”
“If a child doesn’t know how to drive, we teach.”
If a child doesn’t know how to behave, we…
teach?     ….punish?”
Why can’t we finish the last sentence as automatically as we do the others?
(Herner, 1998)

Some may wonder about how this will affect the school culture. This does not mean students will not experience discipline or that there are not consequences for behavior. There will always be consequences for behavior. One of my mentors who had his first career in the military told me, “Discipline is training.” As a result, we will help train students to develop their character and citizenship as well as their academics. Behavioral Intervention Specialists will be a key component of this.

*Source:  MDE website

Learning Never Stops

Educators often spend time in the summer working on improving their knowledge and skills. Some take college classes, some work on curriculum, others attend workshops or conferences.  Why do they do this?  Educators do this for the same reasons that other professionals and workers attend training sessions; to improve and grow as a teacher and/or leader.

This summer, 27 certified staff attended the PLC Institute in Lincolnshire, IL.  Professional Learning Communities (PLC) is a term that has been around for several years.  Essentially, schools are a learning organization.  It is critical for educators to work in teams and to keep learning to improve learning for students.  The concept is simple:  no one educator is as good as a team of educators.  With the complexity of teaching and learning today, it is imperative that we equip educators with the time necessary to work with a team to improve learning for all.

The NPS Leadership team has spent some time learning together this summer and we are excited about welcoming back our teachers and students to the 2015-2016 school year.  It is my hope that we can continue to develop professional learners, both students and teachers, so student achievement can progress.

To the Class of 2015

It is time for NPS to send you out into the real world.  You are now one of us; an adult who is expected to contribute and make the world a better place.  I came to Newaygo when you were in 9th grade, so in a sense I was a “freshman” just like you. It was your first year in the high school and it was my first year as the NPS superintendent.  A lot has changed since then. I know I have learned a great deal and I am sure you have as well.

This community is pleased with all of your accomplishments and leadership exhibited throughout your high school years.  The Class of 2015 has produced several champions in both athletics and band.  The artists in this class have achieved like none before. Academically gifted, this class has many students who finished their high school career with over a 4.0 GPA. Perhaps most significant, is that this class has produced outstanding citizens who exhibit care and concern for others.

I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to see you all learn, grow, and make your path. Congratulations on achieving this milestone. This community is proud of you. Go out and make this world a better place. And… never forget your roots. You’ll always be a Newaygo Lion!  Carry that Lion Pride everywhere. Best wishes to you as your pursue your dreams.

Program (2)

NPS Has Outstanding Participation at County STEM Expo

The 3rd annual STEM Expo at NCRESA was on March 24. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math) are areas in which we work to cultivate student interests and develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills. The STEM Expo is an event open to all students in Newaygo County and it is sponsored by the Gerber Foundation as they have judges evaluate the work of the students and award scholarship money. For the third year in a row, students from Newaygo Public Schools comprised a majority of the participants.

Consider this: Out of the 37 high school and middle school participants, NPS had 22 students who participated! In fact at the Middle School level, out of the 23 participants, Newaygo had 19 students. I was so proud to see the Expo area dominated by Newaygo students and families. I had one staff member from NCRESA ask me why Newaygo was so well-represented. I gave my standard response, “We have awesome students and teachers.” Things like this do not happen by accident. A big THANK YOU goes to science teachers, Andy Busch, Jenne Bush, Deb Iwema, and Cheri Spoelma who worked as mentors for our students so that they could participate in the STEM Expo.

Congratulations to the students who designed, conducted, and evaluated a project in order to participate this year. The confidence they exhibited while presenting their study was impressive. A complete list of the Newaygo students, their projects, and mentor teachers can be found on the district webpage under spotlights. Once again, the Newaygo community can be very proud of our students and their work.