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Do scores on bubble tests define a great school district? Like all those “Whos” down in Whoville knew (and the Grinch learned), perhaps, just perhaps, it’s something much more.

You can look at every public school in Michigan and find great stories about dedicated teachers and support staff making a difference for students beyond what any test can measure.

One such example is in the Pontiac School District, where employees have endured more challenges in the last few years than most districts experience in a generation: severe underfunding creating large deficits, threats of a state takeover, drastic cuts in employee compensation and benefits. The community also has faced big struggles — poverty chief among them.

Like all public school districts in the state, Pontiac accepts students no matter what difficulties and injustices they have endured in their young lives, no matter what hardships they bring to the classroom. Those kids do their best to learn every day, but they begin far behind the starting line.

Decades of research, studies, and observation have revealed the key factor in reaching and connecting to these students so they can rise above difficult circumstances.

The magic ingredient for these kids is dedicated, committed school employees.

Ailene Steinborn is a teacher whose commitment to her students leads her to find ways to connect with students so learning happens.

Steinborn, a 25-year classroom veteran who teaches in Pontiac’s Herrington Elementary School, has given her students hands-on lessons in garden-to-table nutrition for the past six years. She led her class in creating a school vegetable patch and watched this fall as her students harvested 500 pounds of potatoes, which the food service staff used to create cheesy potatoes for the school lunchroom.

Several teachers use the garden as an outdoor classroom to make math and science and writing more relevant for students. “They’re so engaged when they’re in the garden,” Steinborn said. “It’s healing and motivating. The self-esteem that they get — it changes lives.”

Then there’s Tony Pittman.

Pittman was a star quarterback and baseball player in Pontiac in the early ’80s and is now working as a paraeducator in the district. He and two other paraeducators, Fred McFadden and Larry Redmond, coach their district’s Special Olympics basketball team, the Kennedy Panthers.

In the last four years, they’ve won three state championships — and next summer they will represent Michigan in the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle. Pittman says it’s his “calling” to work by day with students who have special needs, and it’s his “joy” to coach a Special Olympics basketball team after hours.

“When I see them smiling and laughing, that’s what I take pride in,” Pittman says. “I know they have dreams too, and they want to experience those things like everyone else does, and I wanted to help get them there. It touches my heart, and I just love it.”

Pittman and his assistant coaches don’t just teach basketball fundamentals, they are involved in the lives of their players, often driving them to and from practice. And they’ve been hard at work raising money to send the team to Seattle.

This time of year reminds us that the true meaning of the holidays lies beyond the gifts, parties and decorations. Likewise, a school’s greatness is defined by more than correct bubbles filled in on a standardized test. Ailene Steinborn, Tony Pittman and thousands like them in public schools across Michigan care deeply about their students. That’s the true heart and soul of a school district.

Paula Herbart is president of the Michigan Education Association.

LABOR VOICES

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.

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