FLINT, Michigan — Principal Shalonda Byas of Brownell STEM Academy is on a mission to change the education narrative in Flint. Born and educated in Windsor, Ontario, she has taught multiple classes from elementary to the university level and briefly worked within the Flint Community Schools (FCS) administration.
As it stands, Brownell is the only STEM school on the northwest end of Flint as well as the only elementary school left in the area. STEM is the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics which helps set students on a lucrative career path — something that Byas wants more Flint students to get familiar with and involved in.
Flintside caught up with the busy principal to talk about why and how Brownell STEM Academy is the only elementary school of its kind on Flint's northwest side, where scholars of Brownell attend after they graduate, and the struggles of public education.
Principal Shalonda Byas hugs a student as she walks through classrooms to greet students and teachers on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022 at Brownell STEM Academy. (Jenifer Veloso | Flintside.com)
Flintside: Why is Brownell the only STEM elementary school in Flint?
: "The steady decline in enrollment over the years has caused school closures resulting in Brownell being the only elementary school left on the north side. We are the only STEM elementary school in Flint Community Schools (FCS) but are not the only STEM school in the surrounding areas. Flint Community Schools not only has a STEM elementary school, but we also have a middle school, Holmes STEM Academy, and Southwestern Classical Academy has a STEM track for students."
Flintside: Are there plans by the FCS school board to convert other public schools into STEM schools?
: "The district supports innovation and continuous improvement and encourages schools to specialize through careful collaborative planning. School teams look to obtain support from the superintendent and school board for approval. It takes a lot of planning, collaboration, co-construction, and research to develop a plan. Then it takes funding and the support of the community and school board to begin a STEM school. FCS did have a STEM program at Brownell years ago, but funding was lost."
Flintside: What are the plans for STEM this coming school year that differ from past years?
: "Year 1 is comprehensive instruction, and instructional capacity-building are provided for all students by a designated and trained STEM facilitator using integrated STEM curricula. Year 2 has designated classroom teachers [to] receive core STEM professional learning and provide instruction to students with support from the STEM facilitator. Capacity-building continues. Year 3 provides professional learning for teachers not previously trained, and classroom teachers provide STEM instruction with support from the STEM facilitator. [I] hope to become a STEM-certified school within 3-5 years."
Principal Shalonda Byas walks through classrooms to greet students and teachers on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022, at Brownell STEM Academy. (Jenifer Veloso | Flintside.com)
Flintside: Where do you see public education headed, particularly within the FCS district?
: "I see public education taking a major dip due to the lack of interest and the decrease in students who want to make education their career, whether in teaching, administration, or support. Currently, our school district is headed in the right direction by continuing to place scholars and their families at the forefront of all decisions and systems. Secondly, we just don't get paid. I'm speaking about educators because a lot of times when we think about education, we only see the teacher. But it takes the entire village to do this heavy [lifting]. You cannot expect people to come in and teach other people's children, have all of that accountability, and not be paid where they can take care of their own families."
Flintside: When you speak of your 'village,' could you expound on who those persons are?
: "If I'm thinking about [Brownell], we have secretaries. They have major roles. I mean, the building can't operate without certain things. We have custodians, food service workers, teachers, [and] paraprofessionals. We have behavior specialists, family engagement facilitators, [and] community school directors. We have tutors. We have success mentors. We have afterschool tutors. We have everything you can think about in social workers, special education teachers, community resource room teachers, and guidance counselors. Anything you can think of, we have that "educational village" here at Brownell."
Principal Shalonda Byas turns and speaks to her office secretary on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022, at Brownell STEM Academy. (Jenifer Veloso | Flintside.com)
Flintside: There's a large blue banner hanging in the vestibule as you enter that says "CKH Award." Could you explain its meaning?
: "Yes, that's Capturing Kids Hearts. [That] purpose is to build relational capacity and focus on building relationships that keep us connected. And so, with Capturing Kids' Hearts, our school was nominated and recipients of the honor of being named a National Showcase School in the 2020-21 school year. And then again, last year in the 2021-22 school year. [So] our goal again is to become a National Showcase School, Capturing Kids' Hearts showcase school for the 2022-23 school year."
Flintside: What is your main goal for Brownell STEM Academy?
"Each year, our goal is to get better, maintain what we've done in the past, and throw away those things that don't work. [We'll] continue to listen, value the input and make adjustments as they are needed based upon what our data says. If we can accommodate adults, we will, but our decisions are always [made] with scholars at the forefront."
For more information on Brownell STEM Academy, visit: brownell.flintschools.org