February 09, 2010

Record–Eagle Covers Buckley Community Schools

Rural school is turning some heads

By VANESSA McCRAY vmccray@record-eagle.com
This article is available at the Record–Eagle.

BUCKLEY -- A girl with brown-and-pink cowboy boots scrutinized a computer screen during a business writing class at Buckley Community Schools.

The media center for middle and high school students is well-equipped with computers, and the school's hallways and exits are monitored with a 50-camera security system.

In another part of the school, Principal Todd Kulawiak demonstrated a projector and document camera setup in a sixth-grade classroom. A teacher switched on a sound device and her amplified voice filled the room, as the students -- one in overalls, another in a green John Deere hat -- worked at their desks.

Welcome to Buckley Community Schools, a rural district rich in school pride and sense of community. Last week, students celebrated homecoming week with a spirit day designated for farm wear.

The small town of Buckley is located amid farmland about 20 miles south of Traverse City. One of the biggest events that happens here each year is the Buckley Old Engine Show. Every August, the show attracts throngs to view a large exhibition of antique tractors and engines.

The school, too, is attracting attention. Its enrollment is up, thanks to up-to-date technology and other initiatives. It has a new superintendent who started his job Feb. 1. And, U.S. News & World Report recently recognized the high school as among the best in America. Buckley was one of half a dozen schools in the region to receive the magazine's "bronze medal" honor.

"Often times, people overlook a little school and kind of poke fun ..., but there are so many things (here)," said Heather Cade, president of the parent teacher organization.

In 2009, the school counted 420 students, up from 398 in 2007, Kulawiak said. Since then, even more new enrollees arrived, pushing the current student count around 425 to 430, he said.

"The projection could be one of the highest enrollments we've ever had at Buckley Community Schools," he said.

The increase comes from people moving into the district, enrolling their homeschooled students and opting to send their children to Buckley through Michigan's schools of choice provision. Kulawiak credited a voter-approved bond in 2006 that paid for technology and building upgrades as another draw for the district. The bond raised more than $3 million for improvements and projects, which were finished in May 2009.

The projects included a security system throughout the school, a sound system in elementary classrooms to enable students to hear teachers more clearly, a laptop lab for elementary students and a computer lab for older students. The bond also funded heating and electrical work and athletic facilities.

What the school offers is more than what some expect, Kulawiak said.

"A lot of times, people have this thought of what Buckley might have been," he said.

The current building, which houses all grades, dates to 1988. Prior to that, the old school was condemned and students were taught in scattered sites, including mobile classrooms, a canning facility and a church, Kulawiak said.

Cade, a 1993 Buckley graduate who has two children attending the school, said the town supported the school and helped maintain its identity.

"I've seen all that. I know what we didn't have. We maybe didn't have the building and everything, but everybody still had the heart," she said.

Buckley's new Superintendent Rick Heitmeyer plans to build on the school's momentum. Heitmeyer is the former special projects coordinator at Central Montcalm Public School District in Stanton and began his job in Buckley last week. He was impressed by the school during his interview process.

"I couldn't get anybody to tell me anything bad about it at all," he said.

Heitmeyer will focus on strategic planning and a vision for the district's future. He wants to have more contact with community groups and the media and continue to look at the school's curriculum and finances. School officials said the district's budget is in good shape, in part because of growing enrollment.

Buckley, along with schools in Ellsworth, Boyne Falls, Grayling, Harbor Springs and Leland, were tagged as bronze medalists in the U.S. News' list of best high schools. The study examined the schools' student performance as well as the percentage of economically disadvantaged students.

Buckley works to improve student achievement by promoting dual-enrollment with Northwestern Michigan College for high schoolers and a program that makes sure students are completing assignments. The parent teacher organization, too, strives to provide "extras" such as movie nights, parties, author visits and school assemblies, Cade said. She credited the school's success to "a lot of people working together in a small community because they want something better."

"Our goal is to keep strengthening that spirit," said Cade.

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