In Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Brimley is the kind of small town where the students of the month in the elementary school get full-page write-ups in the local newspaper.
There's an Indian reservation just up the road, a couple bars, a gas station, a motel and that's about it.
Brimley Elementary serves two groups that often struggle academically. Of the 300 students, more than half are Native American. Many come from low-income families.
You might be thinking at this point that this story is like so many of the education stories out there, about what's just not working in schools. But Brimley Elementary is different.
At this school, American Indian students are outperforming other Natives in the state. The school as a whole performs above the statewide average for all schools, and on some tests, the low-income students are performing at the same level as kids from wealthier families.
So, how does Brimley do it? There are several theories out there. Here are a couple from some of the student themselves:
"Well, everyone's accepted here for who they are, no matter if they're Irish, Native, African American or just French," says 9-year-old Chloe, who just finished fourth grade. She lives on the nearby reservation and her full Native American name is Chloe Biidaasige-Kwe Teeple.
She's a member of the Bay Mills Indian Community and so is her good friend, Grace, who has her own hypothesis: "I think our teachers are teaching us really, really well."
Then there's another big theory: money.
Pete Routhier, Brimley's principal, says the school can't collect property taxes from the reservation, so the federal government subsidizes the school. It's called Impact Aid, and in the year that just wrapped up, Brimley Elementary got $1 million. That translated into about $2,000 in extra funding per student.
"So that does help, big time. That really gives us an extra pot of money," says Routhier. He adds that the school uses that pot for things like hiring more staff and early interventions for struggling students. There's a resource teacher for special education and a speech and language pathologist.
First-graders who are having a tough time with reading and writing get one-on-one time with a specialist. There's an intervention teacher for kids in fourth, fifth and sixth grades — they mostly focus on math. There are teachers' aids to help out in all the kindergarten, first- and second-grade classrooms. And class sizes are small, averaging 22 kids.
There's one more thing. The teachers are constantly assessing their students to make sure they're where they need to be.
First-grade teacher Lannie Castagne does a reading assessment with her kids every month. "Is it a lot of work? Yes, it's a lot of work. I'm here a lot of nights until six o'clock, but it's what's best for the students," she says.
And based on the assessments, the bottom one-third of students get a lot of extra help and support.
So that's what Brimley Elementary is doing differently — nothing outlandish or tech-heavy. It hasn't reinvented the wheel. The school has more money in its general fund, and uses it to hire more people: more specialists and more teachers to keep the class sizes small.
Of course, some students, like Grace and Chloe, have their own wish list for how they'd like to use that money. "I would want to change some of the lunches. Some of the lunches aren't that really yummy," says Grace.
Chloe says that's right: "Well there's not really much to change, the school is good just by itself, but yeah, I agree with Grace, not all the lunches are yummy."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
We do a lot of stories about what's not working in education. But we're going to flip the script and talk about a school that just wrapped up a banner year - in fact, its seventh in a row. We're going all the way up North, as they say in Michigan, to the Upper Peninsula to Brimley Elementary. Of the 300 students there, more than half are Native American, and many come from low-income families. Michigan Radio's Jennifer Guerra visited the school to see what they're doing right.
JENNIFER GUERRA, BYLINE: Brimley, Mich., is the type of small town where the students of the month from elementary school get a full-page write-up in the local newspaper. There's an Indian reservation just up the road, a couple of bars, a gas station, a motel, and that is about it. The kids at Brimley don't get a lot of visitors, so when a reporter shows up with a microphone, they've got questions.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: What's the radio station?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Where do you live?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Are you going to be going to our school to interview other people?
GUERRA: And my favorite...
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: Why are you here?
GUERRA: It's a good question. Why am I here? Well, this school serves two groups that often struggle academically. But here at Brimley, American-Indian students are not only outperforming other natives in the state. They're outperforming white kids. And on some tests, the low-income kids are performing at the same level as Michigan kids from better-off families. So that's why I'm here, to figure out how they do it.
CHLOE BIIDAASIGE-KWE TEEPLE: It feels really good to have good grades. It feels really good to be super smart.
GUERRA: That's 9-year-old Chloe. Her full American-Indian name is...
CHLOE: Chloe Biidaasige-Kwe Teeple.
GUERRA: And this is her friend Grace Hill.
GRACE HILL: I'm turning 10, and I'm in fourth grade.
GUERRA: Grace and Chloe are both members of the Bay Mills Indian community. Chloe lives on the reservation. Grace lives in town. So why do you think you guys are doing so well?
CHLOE: Well, everyone's accepted here for who they are, no matter if they're Irish, Native, African-American or just French. Everyone's treated fairly.
GRACE: I think our teachers are teaching us really, really well.
GUERRA: So that's theory number one - good teachers. Theory number two - money. Pete Routhier is Brimley Elementary's principal. He says the school can't collect property taxes from the reservation, so the federal government subsidizes the school. It's called impact aid. This year, Brimley got $1 million. That translates into about 2000 extra dollars in funding per student.
PETE ROUTHIER: So that does help big time. That really gives us the - an extra pot of money, if you will.
GUERRA: And they spend that extra pot of money wisely on resources like people and early interventions.
ROUTHIER: We have one full-time resource room teacher for special education.
GUERRA: There's a full-time speech and language pathologist.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Blocks.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #5: Blocks. Got it.
GUERRA: First-graders who are having a tough time with reading and writing get one-on-one time with a reading specialist.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: What do you think you want to write about today?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #6: Elephants.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Elephant - what would you like to say about elephants?
GUERRA: There's an intervention teacher for kids in fourth, fifth and sixth grades. They mostly focus on math. There are teacher's aides to help out in all of the kindergarten-, first- and second-grade classrooms, and class sizes are small - average size - 22 kids. And there's one more thing. The teachers are constantly assessing their students to make sure they are where they need to be.
LANNIE CASTAGNE: Are we ready? Oh, it looks like Marissa's table's almost ready. I only see one...
GUERRA: First-grade teacher Lannie Castagne does a reading assessment with her kids every month.
CASTAGNE: Is a lot of work? Yes, it's a lot of work. I'm here a lot of nights until 6 o'clock, but it's what's best for the students.
GUERRA: Based on those assessments, the bottom 30 percent of students get a lot of extra help and support. So that's what they're doing. It's nothing outlandish or super tech heavy. They haven't reinvented the wheel. They have more money in their general fund, and they use it to hire more people, more early interventionists, more paraprofessionals and more teachers to help keep the class sizes small. Of course, some students, like Grace and Chloe, have their own small wish list of how they would like to use some of that money.
GRACE: I would want to change some of the lunches. Some of the lunches aren't that really yummy.
CHLOE: Well, there's not really much to change. The school is good just by itself. But yeah, I agree with Grace. Not all the lunches are yummy.
GUERRA: For NPR News, I'm Jennifer Guerra. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.