Dr. Christine Johns

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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.


Utica Community Schools’ formula for a seamless transition from ACT to SAT

Today’s students experience constant change in their daily lives. Thanks to rapid introduction of new technology, economic fluctuations and shifting world developments, events occurring in their backyards and across the globe impact the opportunities our young people have in school today and will experience later in the workplace.

In addition to offering nationally-recognized academic programming, the Utica Community Schools college culture is preparing students to adapt to change through problem-solving
and innovation.

One change that holds immediate significance for students in Michigan is the transition from the ACT (American College Test) to the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) as the required state assessment for high school juniors effective with the class of 2016.

While both exams measure degrees of college readiness, the Michigan Department of Education has determined the SAT is better aligned with state academic standards to which all public schools are held accountable.

As with ACT, SAT is also widely used by colleges and universities nationwide in evaluating student admissions.

A newly revised edition of the SAT will be given to all juniors next year. To prepare for the transition, UCS educators are engaged in ongoing College Board training to review exam samples and testing strategies.

Parents are also offered opportunities to learn more about the new exam. Nearly 500 parents attended a recent SAT awareness meeting conducted by the district.

Materials from the meeting are available at http://www.uticak12.org/sat/.

Additional parent meetings are planned for next year.

I am pleased to report that UCS students are already on track for SAT success. One reason – aside from strong K-12 academic preparation – is that we administer the SAT precursor known as PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test) each year to nearly 2,100 tenth graders, which gives them an idea of what to expect.

PSAT provides detailed early feedback on where students stand on skills necessary for admittance to and success in postsecondary education. Both PSAT and SAT are designed by the College Board as a consistent means to evaluate students’ academic strengths and weaknesses.

As a longtime partner in our district’s mission to increase student achievement, the College Board also administers the highly respected Advanced Placement program – including the 27 rigorous AP courses we offer UCS secondary students.In fact, the College Board has recognized Utica Community Schools for increased student success and high rates of participation in this college-level coursework.

In UCS, students take more Advanced Placement courses than in any other Michigan school district. Seventy percent of UCS graduates have taken at least one AP course exam and almost two-thirds earn a college-ready score
on one or more exams.

UCS is initiating another important change at the secondary level – a new online academic planning tool called Naviance that is designed to broaden student opportunities.

Naviance is an easily accessible universal resource for everything postsecondary – from college applications to admission requirements, financial aid, course recommendations and scholarship opportunities.

A vital part of the software is a free service that provides SAT assistance of the type parents have been paying for to give their students an advantage.This extra component offers personalized tutoring via media tools that identify and give supplemental support in specific concepts where students have shown to need assistance.

In addition, the College Board has partnered with the Kahn Academy to offer SAT prep videos starting this summer. These free tools will be shared with UCS students prior to the end of the current school year.

Of course, a student’s foremost key to SAT success is to prepare for the exam by taking rigorous courses such as Advanced Placement, algebra I and II, geometry, physics and chemistry in their freshman, sophomore and junior years.

The goal of these and other district efforts is to give our students the best chance for success. The higher their achievement at every level leading up to and including the new SAT exam, the more opportunities they will be able to access once they hold that prized diploma from Utica Community Schools in their hands.

It’s true that change is inevitable. But whatever changes are to come, what matters most is every graduate’s ability to open doors and follow their dreams. It’s what the UCS college culture is all about.

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.

UCS Success preserves strong neighborhoods

As we begin another promising school year, Utica Community Schools remains committed to providing exemplary teaching and learning for the more than 28,000 students who fill our classrooms every day.

Doing so, we also recognize our responsibility to the community in creating a well-educated, globally
competitive future workforce. Our work – and the way we go about it – impacts far beyond the families that directly use our schools.

When new residents or businesses locate here, they have chosen to make an investment in this community – and for good reason.

According to local realtors, our school district’s reputation for academic excellence is a driving factor in attracting homebuyers and business owners.

In fact, a number of parents, grandparents, graduates, business and community leaders and others are
confirming this by sharing their stories of what Utica Community Schools means to them through the UCS Means SUCCESS initiative.

Here are just a few of the comments we heard:

-Angela and Brent Freeman, both active members of the Sterling Heights Regional Chamber of Commerce – “You are going to have a strong customer base for your business if you have quality schools and neighborhoods.”

-Al Block, who’s been a realtor for 25-years – “The information we provide (clients) on Utica Community Schools has always shown a high level of student achievement.”

-Business owner Ray Lope – “(Utica Community Schools) protects the investment you have made in a community and maintains vibrant and attractive neighborhoods.”

-Senior citizen Jo Anne Phillips, known as ‘Grandma Jo’ at Beck Elementary, where she volunteers –“If we can continue to support our schools and that success continues to grow, we are going to have a great future in this community.”

The demand for homes in Utica Community Schools is closely tied to our students’ high academic success.
Buyers know that quality schools protect their investment and increase property and resale values.

As residents and homeowners ourselves, we each can take pride in the fact that UCS students continue to outpace county, state and national peers in achievement.

We can also be proud that all four UCS high schools are named among the nation’s best by Newsweek magazine.

One more fact of UCS pride is that our district’s overall 90-percent graduation rate is 14 points higher than the state average.

And the fact that our schools consistently provide students world-class college and career preparation from kindergarten through their senior year is yet another point of district pride.

UCS continues to offer students the best learning opportunities by focusing on quantified data, best practices and responsible management.

Our secret to UCS Success is by no means a secret. We achieve it by adhering to four proven strategies: setting high standards, teaching students to be productive users of technology, promoting innovative thinking and ensuring accountability to our public.

In keeping success in our sights, the year ahead includes a redoubled emphasis on early childhood literacy by expanding our personalized blended learning initiative in grades K-2, introducing a new reading series in grades 3-6 and implementing the Great Start preschool readiness program.

Back to school means only one thing in UCS. It means we are back to teaching and learning at its best and a new year of success for our students.

It’s the best way I know to protect everyone’s investment in the 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!

Help us celebrate the people and traditions of UCS

As the superintendent of Utica Community Schools (UCS), I see firsthand the amazing things happening in our schools every day. We can all take pride in UCS for its tradition of academic excellence and integral role in our community.

Our nationally recognized schools are preparing students for a very bright future. UCS students consistently score higher on tests than the state average and our 90% graduation rate is nearly 14 points higher than the state average.

We are regularly honored throughout the country for educational excellence. Our four high schools – Eisenhower, Henry Ford II, Stevenson and Utica – are ranked among America’s best high schools by Newsweek Magazine. The Utica Academy for International Studies was recognized as Michigan’s most academically challenging high school in Michigan. Utica Community Schools was recently named one of the best communities in the country for music education. Here is something else we can all take pride in: Utica Community Schools protect home and property values and attract new businesses and new families to our community.

Realtors frequently use the fact that homes are located in the UCS district as a strong selling point. These agents tell us that our strong schools are directly translating into higher property values and a better environment for small businesses. Our school district is truly a destination for families seeking quality education and good neighborhoods.

We all have a story to tell about UCS and what the district means to us, our families and our neighborhoods. We want to do a better job of celebrating and sharing our stories with the community and we need your help!

That’s why we’re launching the “UCS means SUCCESS” program. Whether you’re a graduate who is excelling in college or your career, a small business owner who was attracted to our community because of our great schools or a parent or grandparent who has been a part of making our school district one of the best—we want to hear from you! We’ll be sharing these success stories through videos, social media, local newspapers, the UCS website and school newsletters.

You can submit your stories online by visiting www.UCSmeansSUCCESS.org or calling 586-797-1100.

Our stories are all different, but they share a common thread: We are UCS! Our achievements are the result of a tremendous team effort on the part of students, teachers, parents, support staff, local businesses and the greater community. I look forward to hearing from you!

Christine Johns, Ed.D.
Superintendent of Schools