The West Ottawa School District
Preparing students for a modern and constantly evolving workforce
An award-winning school district in Michigan puts its students first as they prepare for a bright tomorrow
Gone are the days of schools only offering core academic subjects. In addition to offering a valuable curriculum, new skill-based avenues have opened up for students to seize and run with. Echoing an economy that has also evolved, it is only visionary school districts that have opened up a skills-based world of learning that will set the stage for a prosperous future for its students.
The West Ottawa School District is one such example. Providing an impressive array of curriculum offerings, this dynamic school district is dedicated to providing the skills and learning opportunities needed for its valued students to succeed.
Ideally located on a 73-square-mile tract located in Ottawa County on the banks of Lake Michigan, about 28 miles southeast of Grand Rapids, the West Ottawa School District contains 12 brick and mortar schools – eight elementary, two middle, and two high schools – West Ottawa and Dunes Alternative – and one virtual academy for grades 3-12.
Currently, there are approximately 6,700 students enrolled in the district who come from nearby Holland and Zeeland, and other smaller towns and municipalities in the western part of the county. There are over 400 certified teachers and over 200 support staff in the system.
West Ottawa was recently ranked as the #1 public school district in Ottawa County by Niche.com and is one of only two districts in the county to be recognized as a U.S. News and World Report Best High Schools-Silver Award Winner for eight consecutive years.
A new superintendent and a new plan
Tim Bearden, who has been the district’s superintendent since May 2021, after having served in various other school systems as a teacher and administrator for over 30 years, sums up its guiding educational ethos.
“Our school district’s mission is to prepare our students to be college, career, and life-ready. It’s important to recognize that kids have different paths – what works for one kid may not work for another.”
“Whatever path kids choose, we want to make sure that we’ve given them the tools to be successful. Curriculum is not a one-size-fits-all proposition anymore. We want our kids to be prepared as creative solution-finders and problem-solvers for any endeavor that they choose. Our philosophy is: we want our kids to figure out what it is they love and then help them discover ways they can be successful adults in that realm.”
“In 2022, we adopted a strategic plan that’s based on five core values,” Bearden continues. “We involved every member of the school community – teachers, custodians, bus drivers, administrators, coaches – anyone who works for the district had an opportunity to participate. We had community meetings with students and parents and we developed our strategic plan from those meetings. Each one of our goals in the strategic plan is connected to one or more of those core values. It’s been a really good platform for us to drive positive change and growth.
Outlining the its core values, Bearden states that the school district rests on the pillars of equity of access in a diverse and inclusive environment, a foundation of relationship building putting the child first in decision-making, providing a wide range of educational offerings to help the children find their niche and adopting an outlook that places the school district in the center of the West Ottawa community.
Programs for the district’s youngest students
Most modern educators agree that children have a greater chance to achieve future academic and personal success if they can start learning early. Bearden says that the district has several programs for its preschoolers.
One is its partnership with the Outdoor Discovery Center, a non-profit education and conservation organization situated on a 155-acre nature preserve in Holland.
“They run a couple of early childhood learning centers,” he notes. “They’ve worked with us, particularly with their summer school offerings that provide programs that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to offer.”
There’s also the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP), Michigan’s state-funded program for four-year-old children who are deemed at risk for educational failure.
“We offer it in our schools to give students a pre-school experience,” Bearden says. “We also partner with the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District (OAISD), which has a robust early childhood program, including early childhood special ed – ECSE. We offer those programs within our buildings, too, so students with special needs are identified at an early age.”
For its elementary-age population, the district recently instituted a program it calls Panther Pathways.
“We identified a lot of students whose families had the means to give them extracurricular opportunities outside of school,” says Bearden.
“We also had a lot of families who didn’t have the means to do that. To make sure that everybody had an equal opportunity, we created Panther Pathways, which is a broad program across the upper elementary grade level – 4th, 5th, and 6th grade – that provides athletics, STEM, creative and performing arts, and school tutoring in four different seasons across the school year.”
“We use staff and support staff and fund the program by paying them a salary outside of the school day to work with kids. We have an interscholastic competition between our 4th, 5th, and 6th graders across the district. We have eight elementary schools – they play each other in sports; they participate in plays and musicals; we have STEM programs like Minecraft and computer coding; and we have some tutoring. We think it’s one of the best investments we’ve made to connect our kids and families to the school under the auspices of our Office of Family Engagement. We have a director, Pat Collins, who’s been wonderful in implementing that vision. It’s a differentiating program for our district that nobody else around us has.”
Career options for high schoolers
While the OAISD provides administrative and support services, trains teachers in the latest research-based methods, pilots innovative programs, and coordinates early childhood, special education, and vocational services across the Ottawa area, it also has programs for high school-aged students, including its Careerline Tech Center (CTC), which offers juniors and seniors the opportunity to gain skills and/or prepare for post-secondary education in one of 27 programs, or “pathways,” within the following disciplines: Natural Resources and Agriscience; Arts & Communications; Business, Management, Marketing & Technology; Engineering/Manufacturing & Industrial; Health Sciences; and Human Services.
“Students spend part of their day in our high school and a portion of the day in the Careerline Tech Center,” Bearden explains.
“Students can pursue career-related pathways there, and get exposure to something that they think they’re interested in now to find out if it is something that resonates with them. It’s not necessarily directing kids to a certain pathway but allowing them to discover different things, find out where their passion lies, and then help them determine ways that they can pursue continuing education, whether that’s in college or vocational study, or maybe a career path in that area.”
A broad variety of in-school offerings
In addition to a solid academic curriculum throughout – everything from its early STEM training in its elementary schools to International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced Placement (AP) programs in high school, the district offers 47 different visual, performing, and applied arts programs, and more than 120 athletic programs and clubs.
“We have something for everyone,” Bearden states. “And if we have a population of kids who want to explore something that we don’t have, we try to find a way to offer that. We’re constantly looking to give kids an opportunity.
“A great example is our Esports program that we’re trying to get off the ground. (Esports, short for electronic sports, often takes the form of organized, multiplayer video game competitions, individually or as teams.) Esports is a growing area, particularly at the middle school level. So, we’ve invested in some gaming computers and software to give kids an opportunity to participate in Esports. There are scholarship opportunities now at the collegiate level where kids can make a career out of gaming. So, we’re looking for ways to help kids find their passion and then pursue it.”
Ongoing construction projects
Naturally, every thriving school district must also have a robust construction and maintenance agenda. West Ottawa is just now finishing up projects from funds it received via a 2019 bond issue.
“We’re in the final stages of construction on a performing arts center at our high school campus,” Bearden reports.
“It will be a beautiful, state-of-the-art center that will seat about 1,100 people. We completed construction on what I think is the premier athletic stadium in the state of Michigan. It opened last fall for lacrosse, soccer, and football. It has a new digital scoreboard and it’s a great place for the community to gather.”
Further elaborating, he states, “We’re also in the construction phase for a new elementary school on the east side of our district where the population is growing. That’s going to be called Riley Farms Elementary School and will open in the fall of 2025. So, those are big projects. We’re going to the voters in November with a request for a new bond that will generate a couple hundred million dollars, primarily for building improvements, facility needs, technology, safety, and security, and replacing one of our existing pools that is outdated and can no longer be repaired. So, we have that on the horizon.”
Keeping schools safe
When it comes to school safety and security, Bearden says that the district partners closely with the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department and has two of its own full-time school resource officers who rotate among different school buildings.
“We just recently hired a district-wide director of safety and security, which is a new position for us,” he adds. “We hired a gentleman who had retired from the Holland Police Force to direct our entire school safety plans, policies, and procedures. We have a lot of great safety measures in our buildings.”
“For example, we have a separate secure vestibule area in each building when people enter; they’re in that secure area until they’re buzzed into the building by school personnel. Our goal is to transition all of our interior and exterior door locks to an electronic key fob type entry system that allows us to lock and unlock those systems so we can track who enters, and when they enter, across the district from remote sites.”
“We have cameras throughout the district to help us both deter and investigate when there are any particular issues. And we’re looking at our bond issue for some other secure features across the district, like a gunshot detection system that’s being utilized in schools across the state, now. Unfortunately, we spend so much time thinking about it, but the safety of our students and staff is a top priority and we have to recognize what’s going on in the world.”
“We want to make sure that not only are we having measures to prevent things but that we’re also proactive in support for our students and staff who perhaps need emotional support or mental health counseling. We have pathways for kids and adults to find qualified people to speak to support them if they are experiencing challenges in their lives.”
Bearden also recognizes that a school district is an integral part of the greater community and that partnerships are essential for its maintenance, operations, and future growth.
“We have some great partnerships,” he relates. “GMB Architectural + Engineering and Triangle Construction Management have been our primary partners in our facility needs assessment. They’ve worked with the district to do a comprehensive needs assessment to spread over the next ten years to secure the future of our district by ensuring that our facilities are state-of-the-art and working in the way they’re intended; that they’re secure, safe places for people to learn. That’s a great partnership for us; we have a lot of mutual trust with both of those entities. They’ve been part of our past bond issues and, if we’re fortunate enough to have community support, they’ll be part of our bond issue moving forward.”
Another partner is The Community Foundation of the Holland/Zeeland Area (CFHZ), which helps the area’s young people pursue their dreams of post-secondary education or technical school without the financial burden of student debt.
“They gave us a grant to try and close some learning gaps, particularly in third-grade math,” says Bearden. “To have support from a local community non-profit has been a super great thing. I mentioned the Outdoor Discovery Center – they’ve been a great partner for us. Mosaic Counseling provides counseling for both students and staff; they help people find the help they need.”
“Huntington Bank has helped refinance us over the last several years. We’ve been able to recognize many millions of dollars of savings for our community through the foresight of our business office and our partnership with Huntington. We were able to refinance our debt structure to ensure the financial stability of the district. We have a healthy fund equity, we have a healthy budget, and I think we’re investing in the right things.”
“We work closely with Holland Township and Park Township, both on the recreation side and the management side; it’s a critical part of our commitment to the community. We share space with them; we work with them closely; we share the same interests; they work with our students; they have been amazing. A lot of districts are at odds with their municipalities – we have great relationships with ours.”
Getting the best teachers
Of course, at the center of any great educational institution are its teachers, and Bearden notes that this past academic year, the district was the leader in the state of Michigan in teacher compensation.
“We reworked our entire teacher compensation contract because we felt that our teachers weren’t compensated at the level that we wanted them to be – particularly younger teachers in the first ten years of their careers,” he relays.
“So, we embarked on what we call our 50K Project. A lot of our teachers come from Hope College here in town and that costs about $50,000 a year for tuition, room, and board. So, we said ‘What if we use that as a baseline – the minimum we would pay any of our professional staff? And could we filter that across our pay scale?’ We were paying our first-year teachers about $42,000, which was near the bottom of Ottawa County, but we were paying teachers at the top of our pay scale near the top of the pay scale, the second most in Ottawa County. So our issue was: can we pay a competitive wage to our teachers at the lower end of the pay scale who are new in their careers so that we can recruit and retain the best possible people for our students? And, we did. We approached our union, we worked with them hand-in-hand, and we successfully raised the lower end of our pay scale to $50,000, so no teacher makes less than that across West Ottawa.”
“Every teacher in the first ten years of their career got a salary increase and then we gave an off-schedule increase to all of our veteran teachers, too. So, we have tried to be creative in the use of our dollars with a thoughtful mind as to what things have the greatest impact on kids. And for kids, the element that probably has the greatest impact is their teacher. If we put the best teacher possible in front of our kids, then we’re doing the right thing for them and we’re doing the right thing for the profession, too.”
Moving beyond COVID
Going forward, Bearden has some specific academic and extracurricular goals in mind, many of which are focused on repairing the collateral educational and emotional damage wrought by the COVID pandemic.
“Some kids flourished,” he recounts, “but some kids struggled.”
“There’s no doubt that there was some learning loss and some gaps there. So, we’ve invested a lot of energy and some COVID relief dollars into academic and behavioral support for the kids who had gaps. Finally, for this school year, we have a sense of normalcy again after coming off some unusual years.”
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AT A GLANCE
The West Ottawa School District
WHAT: A school district comprised of 13 schools and 6,700 students
WHERE: West Ottawa County, Michigan
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