Hamilton Community Schools

Personal experience with exceptional results!


Dave Tebo, superintendent of Hamilton Community Schools (HCS) defines personalization as the ability to offer a variety of rigorous options to students that are wide in scope, flexible, and focused on what each student needs when they need it. “We want to open the buildings to options for students, providing the time, space, and place for learning what students want and then building it.” Dave’s passion to personalize education for every student is apparent in his 2013 TEDxMacatawa Talk when he said, “I want to provide a personal learning experience with exceptional results for ALL children, preparing them for their future, not my past.”

To prepare students for their futures requires schools to educate students differently than in the past and to offer a variety of options for each unique student that chooses to enroll with them. Hamilton Community Schools is doing this. Based on educational research, Dave guides the district toward more personalized learning for students. He is not afraid to try flexible approaches to teaching and learning, and he permits failure to happen in his district as this is where growth occurs.

Students and staff at HCS are allowed, even encouraged, to fail because Dave Tebo knows that people learn to learn through failure. He has been known to often say, “We are not failures because we fail.” In his own life, he failed at “doing school” in high school and failed student teaching in college. Yet those lessons, along with lessons from his parents (a principal and a teacher), and a job in catering and food service, have defined his learning perspective.

In 2016, Dave had the opportunity to observe the Finnish school system, a top performer in the world. While the U.S. cannot duplicate the Finnish education system due to our cultural differences, there are components of the Finnish system that the U.S. could adopt to teach kids to learn. These include:

  • Giving teachers flexibility and trust, and treating them as professionals
  • Reading, understanding, and applying educational research
  • Getting students outside as often as possible
  • Teaching students to learn where failure is part of the process

For Dave, these points were a reaffirmation of what he was already implementing at Hamilton.

The foundation of Hamilton’s success with personalization lies with the support Dave receives from his Board of Education. After reading Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning and holding focus groups with parents, students, teachers, and administration, the Board came to the conclusion that the district did not have to be one-size-fits-all and could incorporate equally valuable learning options for students. Their strategic vision that focuses on personalizing education for all students and their trust in the professional staff at Hamilton to implement that vision is not evident in most K-12 districts. Through personalizing experiences for students, HCS believes exceptional results will follow.

Hamilton is a rural community southwest of Grand Rapids with a population around 8,000. The school district is part of Ottawa Intermediate School District. Roughly 2,700 students are enrolled in Hamilton Community Schools. The district offers a variety of learning options for preschool students through early college. “Traditional” school includes blended, project-based, online, and outdoor learning. Technology is used for teaching and learning, and the district is looking to be a more than 1:1 district in the next three years. Preparing students for their futures requires personalizing learning for each individual student. Hamilton Schools is accomplishing this by offering a variety of programs and delivery modalities including the following.

Blended and Project-Based Learning

Hamilton Community Schools has devoted a lot of time and resources to blend learning for students. Thirty of their teachers participated in Michigan Virtual University’s first blended learning cohort and approximately 50% of their teachers are doing some form of blending in their classrooms. Some of these teachers now coach other HCS teachers to help them blend learning in their classrooms. Becky Bierschbach, a high school math teacher, is one of those teachers. She coaches 25 teachers on site at HCS who are using a blended model.  

Deanna Malloch, seventh grade English and social studies teacher, is also a trainer for blended learning at Hamilton. She is in her second year of blending instruction for students. “I’m able to meet more of my students’ needs using this model.” she said when explaining what blended looks like in her classroom. While there are still whole class discussions, students also split their time working independently online and in small groups with her. She uses Google Classroom, like many HCS teachers who blend do, to provide information and content to students, track student progress, and inform parents of assignments.

All seventh grade teachers in Hamilton blend their curriculum. Amy Striegle, seventh grade social studies and economics teacher, co-authored an online social studies book through the MI Open Book Project. In this project, a group of Michigan teachers used the Michigan Social Studies Standards to create the seventh grade book, Ancient World History, that can be downloaded by any teacher across the state for use in their classroom.

When asked about the difference between using technology and blending technology, Deanna explained it was how technology is used. “Blending technology is intentional and consistent. It’s using technology purposefully to reach kids.” Blended learning is not all computers and small group meetings with the teacher though. Teachers use a variety of mediums to help students learn, often with a project-based mindset. In addition to online programs such as Khan Academy, Quizizz, Kahoot, Quizlet, and Google Classroom, students use hands-on mediums for projects. HCS has over 20 Buck Institute trained teachers who use project-based learning in their curriculum. One trained teacher is a certified Buck Institute of Education (BIE) trainer who assists staff in building BIE Gold Standard rigorous projects for their classrooms. The trainer also trains teachers in other schools in the county.

Outdoor Learning

Partnering with the Outdoor Discovery Center (ODC), a 150 acre nature preserve in Holland, MI, HCS is able to offer outdoor programs for kids. The Little Hawks Discovery Preschool program and Hamilton’s STREAM School take place at this nonprofit which opened in 2000. The benefits of outdoor and experiential learning has been a topic of research for many years. Hamilton Schools and the ODC put the pieces together to create these successful programs. In addition to partnering with HCS, thousands of students from the surrounding area come to the nature preserve to learn on their miles of trails, wetlands, boardwalks, and prairie.

The Little Hawks Discovery Preschool began as a partnership between Hamilton Community Schools and the Outdoor Discovery Center Macatawa Greenway to provide three- and four-year-old children an opportunity to learn in nature. Students learn outdoor through active play and exploration every day. As students count mud puddles, master colors through the world around them, and move forward, backward, left and right, they are also getting dirty and enjoying learning. When fishing at the pond, students learn that it takes more than a pole and hook to catch fish, and to get worms they need to move rocks and logs. Moving these heavy objects takes teamwork and they recruit friends to help them. Through this exploration and play, students are learning much more than just standards, they are learning how to learn and interact with others.


While the preschool began as a partnership, the Outdoor Discovery Center currently runs the preschool program. About 30% of the children in Little Hawks are Hamilton residence while 70% come from the greater-Holland area (Holland, Grand Haven, South Haven, Hudsonville). Food service is available and transportation is provided by parents. The ODC hopes to provide transportation in the future which would benefit the many at-risk kids who participate in the program. ODC staff is also discussing the possibility of offering summer school.

Hope College has been evaluating this nature-based preschool program since its inception. The results have shown that the test scores of the students participating in the program are equal to or greater than the test scores of students in traditional preschool programs. Also, at-risk students who participate in Little Hawks achieve at a higher level than at-risk students at traditional schools.

The demand for this type of learning has grown exponentially in the three years of its existence. Just this year, they added a one day a week, half-day three-year-old program. “Parents with unborn children are asking how to get their kids into the school.” said Travis Williams, the Outdoor Discovery Center’s Executive Director. “They are also asking what they can do to keep this type of learning going for kindergarten.” Currently, 76 students are enrolled in Little Hawks, 18 of them in the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP). The Outdoor Discovery Center is constructing a new building to house three classrooms and two sensory rooms in 2017 and will be able to accommodate 176 students. Once the new facility is complete, the existing preschool building will be used as the Little Hawks Landing, a facility for parents. The building will have resources on topics such as student growth, discipline, behaviors, etc., and parents will be able to meet with social workers or other support staff there.

When the ODC started turning students away due to full capacity, parents began asking Hamilton Community Schools to start their own preschool program. The Hawkeye Preschool opened in HCS’ Sandyview Elementary School two years ago at 70% capacity. In the second year of the program, 2016-17, the preschool is at 100% capacity with over 40 students. Rather than running an early kindergarten, Hamilton developed a play-based, exploratory comprehensive preschool environment that is GSRP five-star rated. While not designed as a nature-based school, the students get outside and hike around the school grounds every day.

Dave Tebo is known in the educational arena for being a proponent of students using technology as part of their learning. So when asked if he would prefer kids have an iPad in a backpack or a frog in their pocket, he replied, “I want both.” Hamilton’s STREAM School is a perfect example of students having both. Students in grades 6-9 have the opportunity to enroll in STREAM School and spend part of their day at the Outdoor Discovery Center. Sixth grade students will often go to the nature center in the afternoons for their math and science courses. Seventh through ninth grade students spend noon until the end of the day there working on various subjects (7th – math, science, and  elective; 8th – science, language arts, and elective; 9th – language arts and biology). Inquiry and project-based learning approaches are used for students to master state standards as well as prepare them for success in future careers and educational choices. Students connect their learning to the world they live in and learn beyond habitats or statistics to high-order skills such as teamwork, leadership, and stewardship.

The ODC provides a support person to assist Hamilton teachers in developing curriculum and projects that come alive for students. One of the projects contributed to an ongoing Hope College investigation into the growth and development rates of fish in the local ODC pond. In another project, STREAM School students presented to the Holland Board of Public Works and the Holland Energy Prize committee with solutions to engaging the community in the education of energy stewardship. Whether it’s creating their own story problems that are authentic and inspired by the nature preserve, writing essays to apply what they learned “in the field,” or putting together a Shark Tank presentation for a panel of experts on minimizing the impact school groups have on the school’s wetland, students are learning by doing.

Additional benefits of STREAM School for students are learning about possible future careers and losing weight. While much of their work focuses around science, students are exposed to a variety of people and jobs that are not always covered in traditional school. When the students are at the ODC, they are working the entire time. They get dropped off at the lab at the entrance to the nature preserve and have to walk to do all their work. For some grade levels this occurs every day of the week. It’s no wonder a parent shared that their child needed new pants because he lost so much weight in STREAM School. Not only are students losing weight, but teachers are as well. In the first year of the program, one teacher claimed to have lost 17 pounds. He is interested in researching just how much students actually walk during this program.

Home School Partnership

Hamilton Community Schools’ Home School Partnership (HCSHSP) has grown exponentially in the last year. In 2016-17, the program has 600 students and 18 teachers. Most students are part-time and take elective courses. Some of the Home School Partnership students are seat time waiver online students, some are project-based learning students, and some take a combination of the programs. All of the teachers are highly qualified (or overseen by a highly qualified teacher) and some teachers teach both in the traditional program and the Home School Partnership. Most classes meet with their teacher once a week and continue instruction at home.

In addition to online courses, students take elective courses to supplement their home school work. On campus elective courses are rigorous and include Forensics Science, Stop Motion Animation, Musical Theater, Swimming, Band, InfoTech, Exploring the Natural World, Learning with Legos, foreign languages (including Sign Language), and more. Project-based learning electives are community-based and are overseen by a Hamilton certified teacher. Courses include Taekwondo, Game On Baseball Clinic, and Sensibly Homemade (sewing). Students also have the option to take a variety of online courses, including AP, foreign language, CTE, and robotics from Edgenuity, Odysseyware, GenNet, and the Michigan Online Course Catalog.

Home school students are passionate about learning at Hamilton as they get to choose the elective courses that are of interest to them. Students and families also help to build the course offerings. The HCSHSP is not just about options for students and families, but also for teachers. Heather Keesler has 12 years teaching experience but was looking for a position that was more flexible so she could spend more time as a mom raising her kids. She also likes the flexibility in the curriculum in the Partnership. “I like the Montessori mindset and ability to differentiate instruction for students.” Mark Cistaro agrees, while all the preps may be exhausting, the flexibility is what he loves about teaching in the Home School Partnership.

The traditional program and Home School Partnership are very integrated as the HCSHSP classes are held in unoccupied classrooms in the district throughout the day. Because of this integration of programs, collaboration between home school teachers and traditional teachers occurs often. Heather teaches art for the Home School Partnership in the room next to a high school art teacher, who also teaches a HCSHSP class after her traditional classes. “We collaborate and bounce ideas off each other all the time.” Heather shared. Mark has a similar situation with a science colleague. He teaches forensics and historical literature for the Home School Partnership as well as Chemistry and AP Chemistry for the high school. He and the science teacher in the room next door to him often discuss curriculum and have even switched rooms for certain classes to accommodate student enrollment.

Having the Home School Partnership in the middle and high school buildings has its advantages and challenges. “Giving kids the opportunity to have a classroom experience with another teacher [besides their parent], make friends, and socialize are benefits of the program.” stated Kristie Noguera, the Home School Partnership Director. Learning to function and be comfortable in a large building is another benefit. Partnership students even become acquainted with public school students in the buildings and recognize each other outside of school. There is access to learning spaces such as gyms, pools, and labs as well as equipment that is not always accessible at home, and hot lunch is available for students. Challenges that occur with having the HCSHSP in the schools include two-hour delays in schedules, scheduling passing times (6th-12th grade HCSHSP students are in the high school), and the culture change for both home school parents as well as public school staff. Also, there is not always a close-knit community feel as teachers and students are not together in class all day every day as they often come to class and leave, more like a community college campus.

Kristie has had challenges of her own, especially when enrollment took a quick jump. Kristie was the mentor for all 600 students the first semester of the current school year. She has, and documents, two-way communication with all HCSHSP students at least once every week. The two-way communication can be through email or phone but most often is face-to-face. Hamilton has hired four additional mentors to assist with two-way communication for second semester. As the director, Kristie also manages course offerings, online registration, enrollment paperwork, and orientation. When asked what she likes most about the Home School program she replied, “Dave’s [the superintendent] open-mindedness and willingness to make options for families happen. He will take on the tough questions and issues to do what’s right for kids.”

LINKS – Peer Learning

Preparing all students for their future includes ALL students. Becky Myers, Coordinator of Student Services, assists with the district’s LINKS program, a very individualized peer-to-peer support program for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The program is designed to teach social skills to students with autism and includes other Hamilton students in the process. Rachel, a senior with the program, has developed a friendship with her mentee. They spend time together outside of school hours such as attending basketball and football games. “We are learning along with the kids. They learn about themselves and we learn too. It goes beyond school or the classroom environment.”

The program began three years ago with eight students and has grown to about 200 students in grades 3-12. Participants have a monthly lunch meeting where the students with ASD and mentors prepare for and participate in the meeting which usually includes a problem to solve. There are 12 LINKS groups in the district. Each group has approximately 15 mentors and one student with ASD.

“I’ve grown-up with LINKS and have seen my student become more independent and social, communicate better, and improve as a student.” ~Jake, ASD Mentor

In 2016-17, the high school offered an elective course, LINKS, for mentor students who wanted to learn more about the characteristics of ASD, how it impacts individuals differently, and strategies to support the student with ASD in his/her environment. With the deeper knowledge of ASD, the mentor students who take the elective course have better opportunities to practice the skills they are learning when they spend time with their mentee. Seventeen students registered for the class this year.

Prior to the start of the LINKS program, a team of teachers went through an intensive Statewide Autism Resources and Training (START) program to learn how to assist students with autism. Teams in the program include individuals who support a student with ASD including teachers, administrators, and parents. Collaborative and support networks are continued after the training. The program is offered through Grand Valley State University and funded by the Michigan Department of Education, Office of Special Education.

The results of the LINKS program is noticeable. In addition to the friendships formed between the mentors and mentees, the communication and social skills of the students with ASD improve and they are learning to advocate for themselves. Often times, the student with ASD will ask their mentor for help rather than a teacher. Jake, a junior, has been a LINKS mentor since 8th grade. “I’ve grown-up with LINKS and have seen my student become more independent and social, communicate better, and improve as a student.” Another benefit the district has realized with the LINKS program is the huge improvement in the social behavior of the students with autism social disorder. When the students are told how good they are doing, they feel better about themselves and behave accordingly.

Standards Based Grading

Seven years ago, Jim Young, a 26-year veteran teacher, began his standards based grading (SBG) journey. At that time, he and a colleague began using content standards based grading in their classrooms. His first unit using SBG was the U.S. Constitution where students simulated the problems that occurred during the Convention and proposed solutions to those problems.

Jim switched from content standards to skill standards grading four years ago, around the same time that he was working with other Ottawa ISD social studies colleagues to develop an alternative test to the MEAP. The ISD consortium was trying to create an assessment that incorporated more application and skills instead of memorization of content. “Social studies is a good subject to teach kids how to think.” shared Jim. “That was not the focus of the MEAP test.”

Skill standards based grading is a grade reporting model that shows student growth and provides students with positive feedback. This growth model is designed to teach kids how to apply content rather than regurgitate information. It allows students to self-regulate their learning, giving them feedback to self-assess and reflect. Every three weeks, students in Jim’s classes receive their grades and have time to self-evaluate. It also provides important feedback for the teacher. “The best part of using skills is that it allows me to give very specific feedback on what parts of the content students aren’t grasping. Since I am asking students to apply knowledge, I can see how deeply they understand it. It helps me know if my instruction was received and which students need remediation.”

When the 6th-12th grade social studies teachers at Hamilton observed the student achievement in Jim’s classes, they embraced skills based assessment. Performance scales (using Marzano’s 1-4 scale) were developed that focused on evaluating, comparing and contrasting, analyzing, describing and explaining, and generating arguments. Student performance scores are entered in PowerSchool. While students can achieve a top performance score of four, Jim’s goal is to get all students to proficiency (a three on the scale). The reporting of the scores in PowerSchool helps Jim to determine when students are struggling. He then works with them in small groups to help them understand the concepts. Because he is asking students to apply thinking skills to constantly changing content, students may score a four on one assessment and a three on the same skill on a future assessment. The goal is to create consistency in student achievement, no matter what the content. Student growth in each skill can be easily seen in the gradebook. At the end of each term, the 1-4 numbers on the scale are converted into a final grade.

As Jim and his colleagues transitioned from letter grades to performance scales, they had to teach parents and students that learning how to learn was the goal. Getting a two on the scale for an assessment wasn’t necessarily negative as long as the student continued to grow. Even though the transition for students from letter grades to the 1-4 scale was difficult as was learning how to self-assess, “We’re doing the right thing for kids.” said Jim. The district is working toward all teachers using skill standards based grading for all students.

Preparing students for their future requires school districts to look at students as individuals, each with their own specials needs and wants. Personalizing education for these students forces schools to think outside the proverbial box and lets students learn in a way that best fits them individually. Outside the box thinking at Hamilton Community Schools includes trusting teachers to do what is best for students, providing students an array of options for learning, and allowing failure to occur for both students and staff. Through these approaches to education, along with setting high standards at all grade levels, taking advantage of the benefits of technology for teaching and learning, and inspiring students to take ownership for their learning, HCS is meeting the diverse learning styles and educational needs of their students.

Author: Lisa Sitkins, Consultant for EdTech Specialists, March 2017