Metro Detroit educators to get lessons in making classes engaging from renowned educator

An adult stands on stage while a room full of adults sit at round tables in a banquet hall.
Educator Ron Clark talks to teachers and other school staff at a Huntington Bank education event April 9, 2024 at Huntington Place. (Image courtesy of Huntington National Bank)

Leslie Love Smith-Thomas was shocked when she realized what was happening.

Like other educators around her, the elementary school teacher jumped up from her seat and started clapping as a wave of applause and cheers erupted throughout the Huntington Place conference room.

Smith-Thomas and 374 teachers, principals, and superintendents across metro Detroit learned April 9 that they received scholarships for an all-expenses-paid trip to Atlanta to visit acclaimed educator Ron Clark and his school the Ron Clark Academy, or RCA, in July.

The scholarships were provided by Huntington Bank and Ballmer Group as part of the bank’s new Ignite the Classroom initiative. More than 2,000 teachers nationwide are receiving the scholarships to attend the two-day training session

The initiative is also funding events for 7,500 educators that will be hosted in five cities – Detroit, Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh – where educators can learn about Clark’s teaching philosophy and classroom methods.

The training in Atlanta and in the five cities will take place over the next three years.

Launched in 2007, the nonprofit middle school is known for its unique teaching system, including its eight “houses,” based on traits like altruism and courage, and incorporating singing and dancing in the classroom. But the academy is also a demonstration school, training thousands of educators around the world in how to replicate the methods and success in their own schools. According to the school’s website, 108,000 educators have been trained at the Ron Clark Academy, while 100% of its students graduate high school and 90% attend college.

“We felt like we’ve found this secret sauce. We have really found something that works where educators can watch other educators and discuss it, our craft gets better,” Clark said during the announcement in Detroit. “You feel like you can make the change you need.”

Smith-Thomas, a math teacher at The School at Marygrove, said she believes the training will help spread some energy, excitement, and innovation to districts across the region.

She’s also excited about learning some of Clark’s methods, such as working with the brightest students as a way to set expectations for the rest of the class.

“That’s the heart of meeting each scholar where they are and it’s holding scholars to high expectations,” Smith-Thomas said. “For me, that’s what makes a highly effective teacher.”

A new way of teaching

Huntington’s partnership with the Ron Clark Academy began in 2022. Since then, more than 40 educators in Detroit and Columbus have received scholarships to participate in the training program.

Clark said it was frustrating that he could only reach a limited number of educators at one time. Then, Brant Standridge, president of consumer and regional banking at Huntington, suggested he train teachers city by city.

“When I told Brant about what we’re doing at RCA, about how we’re trying to affect the lives of children and teachers and how we really want to spread our mission and connect with communities, Grant was like, ‘That’s the whole mission of what we do at Huntington,’” Clark said.

When educators visit the academy, they sit in on classrooms with 30 students and watch teachers deliver their lessons, Clark said. Observing another teacher’s class is usually taboo in the education world, he said, but is a regular occurrence at the Ron Clark Academy.

“Our school shows teachers strategies and methods in a real world situation that they can then take back and use in their classrooms,” Clark said. “It’s simple – it’s how to question kids, depth of questioning, speed of your lesson, how to arrange your lesson plan in a way that will excite students, how to keep them engaged, how to help kids focus and go deeper into the curriculum. It’s just a lot of basic things that we teach that help educators.”

Clark said he’s heard positive experiences from educators after they took the program, such as one teacher who was ready to retire after 30 years, but decided to stay in the profession.

“One teacher said that it was a complete paradigm shift. It’s been amazing,” he said.

Michael Land, Huntington’s southeast Michigan and northwest Ohio region president, said education is one of the bank’s philanthropy interests and that the academy can provide techniques for teachers to observe and implement.

The Detroit area was selected for the initiative because it’s the second largest region for the bank, he said.

“There’s definitely something to the Ron Clark Academy way of teaching and he wants to share that with the education community,” Land said. “And we think it’s a great way for us to partner with our communities and provide scholarships for educators to go down and see it, bring it back and implement it in their school.”

Northwestern High School Principal Kimberly Rogers was one of the educators who visited the academy last year.

“Even though he (Clark) is unconventional, our motto is to elevate expectation and elevate excellence and so, that’s right in alignment with what he teaches,” she said.

This summer, she hopes to learn ways to have an exciting school environment so that more of her students will come to school. Like many schools in Detroit and Michigan overall, Northwestern is facing issues with chronic absenteeism.

“Having an exciting environment is a motivator to come to school,” she said.

Meanwhile, Rebecca Reed, a fourth grade language arts teacher at Schulze Academy for Technology and Arts, said she’s looking forward to collaborating with more teachers and making education, as described by Clark, “fun, sexy, and cool.”

“We’ve become so divisive in some of the schools, where teachers are like, ‘Well, this is the way I’m doing it,’” she said. “I like working with my colleagues. Everybody has different talents, everybody has different ideas and that’s what makes it better.”

Micah Walker is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. You can reach her at mwalker@bridgedetroit.com.

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