by Sarah W. Lenhoff

“The standing joke with parents at Detroit Merit is that I came with the building,” says Principal Sandra Terry-Martin. And they’re right.

Terry-Martin started her teaching career at a Catholic school on the east side of Detroit. In 2002, the building was converted into a charter school managed by National Heritage Academies (NHA). Terry-Martin applied for a job and got it. She taught fifth grade for five years and was then promoted up the ranks to dean, assistant principal, and finally principal. She is now a well-known institution in a school that is undermining stale beliefs about who can learn at high levels.

Detroit Merit Charter Academy is a K-8 charter school authorized by Grand Valley State University. More than 90 percent of Merit’s students are low-income, 98 percent are African American, and about 11 percent have disabilities. Despite what many might think when looking at these numbers, Merit students are beating their peers across the state no matter their income-level or race.

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Close to 70 percent of Merit’s students are proficient in math, far above the state average for all students, which is about 30 percent proficient. In reading, the school does even better – 88 percent of students at Merit can read on grade level or above. That number is only 64 percent statewide. In writing, too, the school is defying the odds, with 83 percent of students writing on grade level or above.

When asked what makes Detroit Merit so successful, Terry-Martin says, “It’s not rocket science.”

“We have really high expectations. We believe all students can attend and graduate from college. We make sure students get into a great high school. We make sure students know exactly where they are as far as performance. All students know whether they are ahead or behind and how much they need to grow to get where they need to be.”

The school’s commitment to tracking performance data and communicating it honestly is clear in every classroom. Students at every grade level are asked to reflect on their own learning and share with the class when they have mastered the material and when they need more support. Teachers then check students’ work at night to make sure they are communicating their understanding accurately.

Students and teachers have also embraced Michigan’s Common Core State Standards – high expectations for what they should know and be able to do at each grade level. Principal Terry-Martin believes these expectations are allowing Merit to “prepare students to really function in the real world.”

“Students are talking more, speaking more, and doing more close reading. NHA does a really great job with professional development. Our whole staff had two days prior to school starting going through the objectives, breaking down the language, looking at examples of instructional shifts. We also had three sessions provided by NHA that were regional, so we could collaborate by grade level and share resources, ideas, and lesson planning.”

Detroit Merit also has a unique commitment to developing its teachers throughout the school year. The school has an evaluation system grounded in observing and practicing high quality instruction. Teachers who are in their first three years in the classroom are assigned an experienced, trained mentor. Novice teachers observe their mentors or other seasoned teachers eight times a year, and their mentors observe them eight times. Terry-Martin says that those data “don’t go to the administration. They’re just for learning.”

And it doesn’t stop there. Mentors check in with their mentees at least weekly, and new teachers get one-on-one time with a dean for 30 minutes every week to discuss what the dean has observed in their teaching. This kind of face time with experienced teachers and administrators is incredibly rare in most schools. Many new teachers are left to figure out how they’re doing and how to get better on their own, with nothing more than perfunctory walk-through observations once or twice a year.

Research has shown that improving the quality of data and feedback to teachers, and therefore improving instruction, can have a huge effect on student performance.

Clearly, it’s working at Detroit Merit.

About eight years ago, Principal Terry-Martin bought custom water bottles for a school fundraiser. The message on the bottles?

“The Finest K-8 School in the Nation.”

Terry-Martin admits that it’s a “huge, lofty statement.” But she says that’s her goal – to continuously improve, to be the finest school in the nation.

“That’s what our kids deserve,” she says.

Detroit Merit Charter Academy, Detroit, MI

Sandra Terry-Martin, Principal, Detroit Merit Charter Academy, Detroit, MI