A Culture of Belonging Allows Students to Flourish in a Michigan District

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Belonging School Kentwood

Eighth graders enjoy a light moment in Alison Van Dyke's ELA class at Valleywood Middle School in Kentwood, Michigan.

They arrived in a community just outside Grand Rapids, Michigan from war-torn countries and refugee camps where they had to sleep in tents. Educators in Kentwood Public Schools embraced the newcomers and made it a priority to make every child feel safe.

According to, Kentwood is the fourth most diverse district in the nation, made up of students from 94 countries who together speak 116 languages. Look up and you’ll see the flags of students’ home countries lining the halls of every school, and posters emblazoned with the word “belong” in dozens of languages welcoming students at their classroom doors. But these things would mean little if it weren’t for the teachers and curricula working together to create a sense of belonging.

“Kentwood is a safe place to be yourself,” says Janiah, a seventh-grader in the district. “You are respected. It just feels special.”


Multilingual Learners


Languages Spoken


Most diverse district in the country

When It Comes to Belonging, Curriculum Matters

Kentwood teachers value students’ backgrounds and cultures. They made sure to choose curricula that does the same.

“It is critically important that we ensure our curricular resources are culturally relevant,” says Jacquie Harris, the principal at Crestwood Middle School. “When we’re vetting resources, we’re looking for those pieces that pull in the student voice, so that they see themselves and their peers in the learning.”

The HMH Into Literature curriculum the district uses in its middle and high schools includes Fresh Lit, a collection of culturally relevant YA short stories written for HMH by diverse authors. The stories, in English and Spanish, explore topics young readers care about, such as environmental issues, the immigrant experience, romance, and even zombies.

To accelerate multilingual learners’ proficiency, Kentwood chose English 3D, a curriculum that builds on students’ language, culture, and experience through translanguaging, contrastive analysis, and home-language connections. Students also benefit from daily discussions and writing activities on topics such as recycling, gaming, teen health, voting, and texting.

All of these topics can lead to discussions that draw on students’ experience and make the lessons stick. Meghan Neal-Sienko, a multilingual-learner teacher at Pinewood Middle School, recalls that when her students read about recycling in an English 3D lesson, they realized they knew more about the topic than they’d thought. Some students remembered saving plastic bags in their refugee camp and rolling them into soccer balls. “They would recycle plastic bags and recycle everything, really,” she says. “So for some of them, it's not a new idea.”

Angela Rivas, a resource room teacher at Valleywood Middle School, appreciates having curricula that prioritizes students’ lives, especially since she didn’t have that growing up as a person of color in a predominantly white school.

“Now that I'm a teacher and I have students who speak multiple languages, who are coming from different cultures, I think it's so important to be able to bring their experiences into what they're learning in the classroom,” she says.

A Sense of Belonging Grows in Kentwood

How do you make everyone who walks in your school feel welcome? Educators and students reflect on how Kentwood Public Schools achieves a sense of belonging for all. 

The Most Gains I’ve Ever Seen in My Career’

Students can lose confidence when they need intervention, especially in the upper grades. Creating a sense of belonging can be crucial to their success. Kentwood chose Read 180, an intensive intervention curriculum that supports the needs of older striving readers.

Kentwood teachers often see students in middle and high school who are reading at a kindergarten level, but who don’t want to read babyish books on topics that have nothing to do with their lives. “The connection for the students is huge,” says Renee Wirth of the Read 180 curriculum. She's a secondary ELA instructional coach at the East Kentwood freshman campus. “Students wanted to know that the materials they’re working with are age-appropriate and of interest to them.”

Melisa Mulder, another secondary ELA instructional coach at the East Kentwood freshman campus, says the Read 180 app is a gamechanger because it offers so many different entry points for students to access the content, depending on their assessment scores.

“Everything's leveled, from the fluency passages they read, the vocabulary, the spelling, the length of the passages,” says Mulder.

Mulder saw the power of the Read 180 app firsthand during a classroom visit. “A student came across a segment on the software that spoke to her and her background,” says Mulder. “And I just saw her eyes light up, where she's like, ‘I can connect to this; it speaks to me.’”

Kentwood teachers find their own ways to integrate student experiences with the curriculum. Students in Ms. Rivas’s class encountered the word “mourning” in a recent lesson about the assassination of President Lincoln. She asked the class: What does it mean to mourn someone? Have you ever experienced a loss? How does your family deal with loss?

“Taking the time out from the curriculum to have these discussions is really important because we're bringing it back to real life and how this applies to them,” says Rivas.

Teachers and students are seeing results. “I was there when Kentwood implemented Read 180 in 2005, and it was the most gains I’ve ever seen in my career,” Mulder says.

Romeo, a sixth grader, can attest to the program’s effectiveness. He says he wasn’t a good reader in the third grade, but Read 180 made a difference. “I barely knew how to read words, but now I can read fluently. I can now understand words and what they mean, and I'm happy at that progress.”

Spotlight on Intervention

Hear educators from Kentwood Public Schools describe how the Read I80 intervention program captures students' interests, connects with their lives, and improves academic outcomes.

Angela Rivas: "We can connect the curriculum to students' lives, which ultimately makes for a better learning experience."

Renee Wirth: "Last year, 85% of my students were able to grow at least two grade levels, which helps them in all of their classes."

Melisa Mulder: "These are texts students want to read, they're excited to read. I want to see it grow because I know it works."

Final Thoughts on Fostering Belonging

Sanela Sprecic, the program director for multilingual learners for Kentwood Public Schools, knows a little something about being a newcomer. She arrived in the United States from Bosnia in 1997, and says she has walked in her students’ shoes and understands their struggle.

Sprecic believes that a sense of belonging comes about through equitable access to two high-quality resources: teachers and curricula. Kentwood Public Schools has invested in both and is seeing the dividends.

“Coming from a refugee background,” Sprecic says, “and knowing what it takes to be successful, seeing students progress and seeing them now that they are graduating college, they’re going to med school, and they’re lawyers, and teachers, and professionals—it just fulfills my heart.”


Explore Read 180, our personalized, adaptive, and student-owned approach to reading intervention for Grades 3–12.

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