Dr. Christine Johns

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The Spirit of Utica Community Schools

Our school district vision includes a focus on developing students into “productive, contributing members of their society.”

Through this focus, our students are demonstrating the care, compassion and service to others that also represent the fabric of our community.

This shared vision we have with our families and residents is never more evident than this time of year, when our staff and students support more than 200 charities.

Helping others is part of spirit of our community. In addition, we promote this commitment to service through our vision because it has a direct tie to a student’s future success.

Our work with colleges and universities shows the importance of community service to admissions. Service is also an important consideration in the scholarship opportunities that are offered to our graduates.

Beyond these practical reasons, however, is that volunteering is the right thing to do.
Recently, members of the superintendent’s advisory committee discussed the many ways they are supporting others – not only during the holidays, but throughout the school year.

Many of the students have visited the charity organizations that their schools are supporting to distribute the gifts or the food items.

The students were visibly impacted by how they are making a difference.

In addition, our students are also realizing how this community has nurtured their success. They also have a greater understanding that it is their responsibility to give back throughout their adult lives.
We have great young people in our community who care deeply about their friends, neighborhoods and world.

Clearly, our future is in good hands.

All the best wishes for a safe and happy holiday season.


Caring UCS community directly impacts student achievement

There are many great reasons why our communities are recognized as great places to raise a family: exemplary schools, strong and safe neighborhoods and a thriving business community.

Underlining all of these strengths is that we live in a community where residents show care for one another, particularly when it comes to the future of children.

This care is demonstrated in many ways: older students helping younger students; senior citizens volunteering to help students in math and reading; parents working hand-in-hand with teachers on their child’s academics and future goals; and business representatives mentoring the next generation on their career options.

You see it every day in our schools.

For instance, a UCS senior has been sharing her interest in computer science with junior high school students to inspire them to pursue computer science. She recently held a camp with junior high school girls to create excitement about programming and address a gender imbalance in female students pursuing computer science-related careers.

Many schools have created Project Unify clubs, where friendships are created between general education students and students with special needs.

We have more than 50 senior citizens who work with our elementary students as part of the “Reaching Higher Across Generations” program.

Our local business leaders mentor students through work partnerships or by advising our school district on their needs and the skills they seek in graduates. One of my favorite events is the Career Focus Luncheon, where 2,000 sixth graders have lunch with business leaders to receive guidance on their hopes and dreams.

These examples show a community that rallies around its youth because it is the right thing to do.

It also has a direct impact on student achievement in another important way.

The knowledge that community members care about them is an important indicator of student success.

Last year, our students were asked to give us feedback on a series of factors that are proven to lead to academic success.

Specifically, we asked students about their:

  • Engagement – their involvement in and enthusiasm for school;
  • Hope – the ideas and energy they have for the future; and
  • Well-being – what they think of their current experiences and future success.

The good news is that because of the strength of this community, UCS students are in a better place when it comes to these factors than similar responses received from students at a national level.

One reason for those positive responses?

The data we received from students demonstrated that a key factor for the optimism was that they know someone in this community cares about them – a significant caring adult such as a teacher, parent, coach or mentor.

No matter who you are in our community, your concern for the next generation is making a difference.

I wish you the best for the 2015-2016 school year.

Planning tool provides universal resources to make college and career dreams a reality

We are extremely proud of the college culture we are creating in Utica Community Schools.

This culture means – and will continue to mean – opening college and career doors for our students by emphasizing the importance of post-secondary experiences – whether that is a technical school, community college or four-year university.

As a result, our students are making conscious decisions to increase the rigor of their course offerings and take advantage of the Advanced Placement opportunities in our secondary schools.

These decisions continue to make a difference. Scholarship offerings for our students exceed more than $30 million annually. It is not unusual for UCS families to save a full year of college costs as a result of their child’s AP success. Our graduation rate at 90 percent is 14 points higher that the state average.

But there is still more work to be done.

For this reason, Utica Community Schools is introducing a new tool that will assist families in navigating the road that leads from students envisioning their careers to realizing and creating their dream jobs.

It is also a tool that is unique to UCS students, as we are one of the first public school districts in Michigan to use this system.

The tool, called Naviance, supports the college and career process by being a universal resource tool for everything post-secondary – resources, applications, admission requirements, financial aid, course recommendations and scholarship opportunities.

The system provides students with a variety of features, including college research tools, course planning, and career and goal assessments to help connect what they are doing in school to what they would like to do once they graduate.

These features are personalized for each student based on their career interests and goals.

Even better, the program takes parent involvement to a new level by making them active partners in this planning process.

An on-line tool called Family Connection provides families with access to resources and other collaborative activities that are supporting their students’ college and career-readiness activities.

These resources include a resume builder that provides students with a structured approach with intuitive instructions. The planning tool also walks students through completion of the Common Application for college admission and targets scholarship opportunities based student’s specific career and post-secondary choices.

Students who piloted the program this fall report that they love the expanded post-secondary opportunities that are identified for them in their field of interest. Students are finding a wide range of post-secondary institutions that support them in their career goals.

Other students and families like the test-prep features that are saving them both time and money. The free service gives students access to tutorials that systematically walks them through what they need to know to be successful on college entrance exams.

Naviance is currently being introduced to all UCS sophomores and juniors. By the end of the school year, all secondary students will have access to the system with parents having this resource by the Fall 2015.

Our college culture is about making sure that our students are on a solid path to their successful future.

The art of navigating that path has just become clearer for our students and their families.

School partnerships with parents, business community offer students keys to success

In Utica Community Schools, we build on our students’ sense of discovery by creating a wide array of academic opportunities that begin to provide clarity to a question they started asking in elementary school: “What do I want to be when I grow up?”

We believe it is never too early for families to begin planning their children’s unique academic pathway toward becoming educated, capable adults.

Establishing early partnerships between home and school can only enhance a child’s learning. As we approach parent-teacher conferences, I want to encourage UCS parents to continue taking an active interest in their son or daughter’s classroom choices and experiences at every level.

My message today is focused on the more than 5,600 students in grades 7, 8 and 9 in UCS schools who are at a pivotal point along their academic path. This is truly a time of transition and self-discovery for students who start the journey as children leaving the elementary world and later emerge as independent young thinkers beginning to see their place in the college and career world.

We can gauge how well we as educators, parents and community members are preparing them for their next level by feedback from the largest universities and the smallest workplaces. It is feedback that tells us they see in UCS graduates the very basis of what they seek in their recruitment process – students who have challenged themselves, are proficient problem solvers and most importantly, have already completed a wide range of rigorous experiences in their K-12 education.

The fact that UCS students have these skills validates our ongoing commitment that a diploma from Utica Community Schools will continue to open doors for graduates. From their first day in kindergarten, UCS students receive rigorous academic experiences; pursue choices in the arts, athletics or community service and are provided multiple options to explore college and career interests.

For example, junior high is where, in addition to rigorous required classes, our students first experience the district’s comprehensive Career and Technical Education (CTE) curriculum. Here they can begin to explore diverse career pathways that show them the connection between academics and future professions – “connecting the mind and the hands,” as our CTE educators say.

No matter a student’s ultimate career goal, these experiences are wholly beneficial. One such example is our secondary mechatronics robotics program where, in addition to technology and engineering content, students also gain knowledge of physics concepts embedded in the course curriculum.
Beginning in eighth grade, UCS students develop an individual four-year career plan with the goal to explore potential work interests well before starting postsecondary education. This year, our focus has expanded to tie this planning more directly to a student’s course selection throughout high school.

The Academic Blitz offers information about the district’s specialized high school options, Advanced Placement, early college and dual enrollment, CTE choices and much more in a single evening designed to help form a student’s academic ‘game plan‘ for success.

Secondary students and families are also invited to learn more about college and career options and academic preparation at two other yearly UCS events: our Career Expo on March 19 from 7-9 p.m. at Eisenhower High School and our College Fair scheduled in April at Henry Ford II High School.

Students who are beginning their junior high journey are poised to make educational choices that have the potential to impact their entire lives. Our job as educators and as parents is to make sure they use these years wisely and productively so when the time comes, their learning experiences will be the keys that unlock a successful future.

Community support, community pride helped launch the Class of 2014

This year, more than 2,250 Utica Community Schools graduating seniors are leaving our classrooms to advance to the next chapter of their lives.

As a lifelong educator, I could not be more proud of the character, work ethic and accomplishments of these young adults – our Class of 2014.

What makes me even more pleased is that UCS graduates are taking with them a competitive advantage over their peers, thanks to this remarkable community. The entire UCS community can be justifiably proud of the accomplishments of the Class of 2014.

Our graduates have excelled in academics, athletics and fine arts at statewide and national levels. They have been accepted to universities across Michigan and literally coast to coast. Their successes were nurtured by a community that supported them as they grew into caring, productive young adults.

Now as never before, high school graduates face fierce competition. Colleges and universities are becoming increasingly selective, looking well beyond a student’s academic performance as a basis for admission.

For example, the Detroit News recently described this fall’s incoming University of Michigan freshmen this way: “…a future Wolverine also has an imposing profile outside of the high school classroom, officials say. Students applying to U-M volunteer, tutor and raise money for worthy causes. They also publish books, develop apps, travel and even start their own businesses.” The same can be said at Michigan State and other top tier universities.

Employers as well are seeking to add workers who can demonstrate a wide range of skills and knowledge – even for entry-level positions. Businesses that partner with the district tell us that when choosing individuals for highly skilled jobs they look for more than postsecondary degrees. They look for candidates who also possess a strong work ethic, can solve problems and contribute as part of a team.

It is here that UCS graduates have the distinct advantage. Our students are not only products of a nationally recognized and respected school district; they also come from a community built on a tradition of hard work and ingenuity. They have the advantage of growing up in a place where high personal standards and concern for others are expected.

I recently witnessed a group of our graduating seniors displaying these important traits during the district’s annual Superintendent’s Scholarship process. The selection committee received 130 applications this year, with 35 scholarships awarded. The selection method is not unlike a college admissions experience.

While all the applicants proved deserving – showing exceptional academic promise in a rigorous curriculum including Career and Technical Education and/or Advanced Placement courses – the recipients were selected because they possess something extra, something nurtured from the opportunities this community offers.

Because of community leaders who care about young people, their education and their future, the students were able to explore careers and learn workplace skills in local offices, businesses and industries.

Because of caring adults who lead community charities, the students were able to take part in service activities, helping others in local hospitals, churches, shelters and nursing homes.

These graduates are representative of the competitive advantage Utica Community Schools provides all of its students. It is that advantage that will enable them and their classmates to compete and succeed in the best arenas – whether in college, the workplace or military service.

And so, on behalf of more than 2,250 families who are celebrating a son or daughter’s graduation from one of our high schools this year, we thank you, residents and members of the entire UCS school community.

Thank you for helping nurture these young men and women and providing opportunities that are opening doors for them and their entire generation. You have good reason to be proud.

Together, we have made this difference. And we could not have done it without you!

UCS students live what they learn

Our community puts children and their education at the center of everything it does. It is one of the reasons I’m proud to live here. The residents of Utica Community Schools – young parents to empty nesters – are committed to volunteering in our schools, advocating for our students and investing in their future. This spirit of support is the foundation of a family-centered community nationally recognized as a great place to live, learn and work.

Throughout the year, but especially around the holidays, UCS schools have always returned this commitment by helping those less fortunate in our community. True to our tradition, UCS students, parents and staff are again partnering with local charities such as Kiwanis, Lions, Extended Hand, Toys for Tots, Salvation Army and others to assist neighbors who are struggling.

Visit any of our schools and you will see mitten trees and food collections for the needy and homeless. You will also see our students giving their time and service in many other ways. Some will visit older citizens. Others will gather items for U.S. military personnel far from home. Some will raise funds to buy livestock to sustain children in third-world nations. While still others will help with everyday life closer to home – like the Young Educators Club members at Henry Ford II High School, who will offer an evening of free childcare to busy parents at a feeder school so they can do their holiday shopping.

Mentoring our students in citizenship, caring and giving really has no season in UCS. We are merely reinforcing the values you as parents and grandparents have instilled in them at home.

As citizens of an ever-shrinking globe, they are learning how each generation must work to make sure the world they inherit is a better place for all. The compassionate skills learned and nurtured in home and school will prepare them for this mission and carry them throughout life.

I am proud of our young people and our school district’s central role in the six communities we serve. As the calendar year draws to a close, let me thank you for supporting another successful year of quality teaching and learning in Utica Community Schools. On behalf of the students, staff and Board of Education, please know that we couldn’t do it without you. Have a great holiday season!

Making the Most of Parent-Teacher Conferences

Parents and teachers will be sitting down this month for the first of two scheduled conferences. These important meetings are aimed at furthering the home-school partnership and ensuring students are meeting the shared expectations of both parents and teachers.
Study after study has shown that effective school-family partnerships are an important key to student achievement. This is certainly the case in Utica Community Schools, where our principals report ninety percent or higher parent participation in conferences.
The conferences are held during the fall after the first marking period and in the spring during the third marking period. Both provide avenues to make sure students are on track and experiencing academic success in our schools.
It is important that we take advantage of this opportunity to focus on how parents and teachers can support the unique needs of each student.
To promote successful conferences, national education and parent organizations have a few simple suggestions:

•Before the conference, it is important to think about the academic goals for your child. If age appropriate, you can also talk to your children about how they feel they are doing in school. Also, teachers need to be aware if there is anything unusual about your child’s approach to school this year.
•During the conference, UCS teachers will share information on how students progressed through the first marking period. Discussions will center on whether the student is meeting expectations and educational strategies that can be supported by parents and teachers. It is important that the conferences end on a positive note with concrete actions at both school and home that allow our students to meet their full potential.
•After the conferences, it is important that parents keep in touch about the progress of their child. Parents have a great tool at their fingertips in PowerSchool. Regular updates and visits to this site provide parents updated information on progress and attendance.
In addition to PowerSchool, our schools and district have active Web and social media sites that contain calendar dates, school and district activities, and news that celebrates the many successes of our remarkable students. Your participation in activities demonstrates to your child the priority you place on his or her education.

Most importantly, if – at any time – you have any questions or concerns, your teachers and principals are only a phone call or e-mail away.
We appreciate the tremendous amount of support we receive from our parents and school community during conferences and throughout the busy school year. We look forward to seeing you in our schools over these next few weeks in support of your child’s continued academic success.