Traverse City News and Events

Bryan Kay Has Some Magic Going At Traverse Heights

By Ross Boissoneau | Oct. 3, 2021

Throughout his career in education, Bryan Kay has sought to improve student performance – and enthusiasm. He believes that if kids enjoy coming to school, they’ll perform better. So when he was named principal at Traverse Heights Elementary in fall 2020, he wanted to dive right in. “I have a passion to help kids in situations that are challenging,” he says.

Things don’t come much more challenging than what he walked into at Traverse Heights. The school has historically had one of the largest populations of at-risk students within Traverse City Area Public Schools. Exacerbating things was the fact Kay came to the position in the midst of the pandemic.

He says that during that first year he found students felt disconnected from each other and from school. Some felt they didn’t belong at school at all.

So this year, he decided to implement a new program to help build enthusiasm throughout the school, for all grades, all students, and all teachers and staff -- and he looked to Harry Potter for inspiration.

Kay and the staff saw the way the students at Hogwarts in the world of Potter were sorted into houses, where all ages would meld into one team, and thought an approach like that would benefit the school. “A lot of staff members like Harry Potter,” says Kay.

So last spring the staff met and discussed how such an approach would look at Traverse Heights. “The staff built the system together, what it would be and what it would stand for,” says Kay.

As in the Harry Potter books, the houses are all multi-age, in this case pre-school through 5th grade. Throughout their time at Traverse Heights students will belong to the same house, which are named for the Great Lakes.

The first week of school, students and staff gathered on the soccer field behind the school to find out which house they would become part of. They were sorted into their house using sealed envelopes (no magic sorting hat, unfortunately). Staff cheered on students as they were sorted, as did the students when new members joined their house.

Students earn points for a number of positive actions and activities, just like in the books. Teachers can award them any time they observe students exhibiting safe, respectful or otherwise good behavior, such as cleaning a space in the cafeteria or helping another student.

Kay anticipates that older students will mentor the younger ones from their house. He says that way students will depend on one another and not worry about fitting in, but see school as a place they want to be. “It’s teacher to student and student to student, so learning can occur.”

Each month, the student with the most individual points will be awarded a scooter and helmet donated by the school PTO, and one hour of bowling for the student’s family provided by Incredible Mo’s. The houses will be recognized as well, with the house with the most points having its flag flown over the school. Special assemblies will recognize the house champion at the end of each semester and at the end of the school year.

Behind it all is an emphasis on students positively engaging with one another and with staff. Kay believes that will also improve student performance, that student engagement and mentorship and academics are interrelated. “The whole intent … is to create connections and relationships to pave the way for better learning. It’s tough to learn if (students) feel they don’t belong,” Kay says. “It’s fun, but everyone has to work hard and try hard, (then) celebrate success.”

Kay previously taught at Blair Elementary, another school with a large population of students who come from difficult situations. In fact, he and his wife ended up getting teaching jobs next to each other at Blair. “I’ve only worked in at-risk schools,” he says, dating back to when he taught in Denver before moving back to his home state.  

While the program has only been in existence for a month so far, Kay is enthusiastic about how it is impacting the school. “We want to strengthen school pride,” he says.

And his boss agrees: Superintendent Dr. John VanWagoner tells The Ticker, “Bryan has done a wonderful job of bringing innovative ideas and highlights to the students the past two years. We are just thankful to have him as the leader of that building.”
Pictured: Kay, with the student of the month, Harper Smith, who earned the most house points for the month of September.


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