Long-time principal attributes success to community school concept

Determined to make Durant-Tuuri-Mott (DTM) Community School a place where teachers, students, staff and families “know one another and help one another,” Dan Berezny spent 23 years nurturing community within his building and the neighborhoods that surrounded it.

Berezny, who retired this June from the Flint (Michigan) Community Schools, says his goal as a principal and educator was to create “a culture and climate conducive to learning.”

“We practiced the three ‘B’s’ every day — Be respectful, Be responsible and Be safe,” he said of his students and staff. “Too many of our children have been exposed to things that are unsuitable for them, so at school, we tried to create a safe and orderly environment. Without that, how can anyone learn?”

Principal’s inclusive leadership can impact academic achievement

Dan Berezny headshot.
Dan Berezny, one of the last of the Mott “interns,” retired this June.

Berezny’s commitment to the school — and that of his staff of 90 — has paid off. Although eight out of 10 students at the K-5 elementary building qualify for federal free or reduced-price lunches and mobility rates hover around 30% annually, DTM students consistently meet Michigan’s Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements in English, language arts and mathematics.

According to a 2011 article in New Republic, Berezny’s reputation for diligence, his ability to recruit like-minded and dedicated faculty, and his innovative methods are at the core of the school’s academic achievements.

Trained as a community school director, Berezny is one of the last of the 1,000 formally trained “Mott interns” to complete an advanced degree in community education.* He was taught, and still believes, a building administrator must be visible and available to staff, students and families to be effective.

“There are three points during the day where the principal’s presence is critical. I made a commitment to be there when the children ate breakfast — so their day and mine started out right. I did jungle-gym duty at noon recess. And I was there at the end of the day when the buses rolled in and the parents came to take their children home,” he said.

“A good principal leads by example. I never asked my staff to do something I wasn’t willing to do myself.”

Besides, says Berezny, “I like the children. I’ve always been a community school director disguised as a principal.”

Opening the school door to community

Born and raised in Flint, Berezny spent “morning, noon and night” hanging around the local elementary school gym. In high school, he worked as an assistant to the local community school director.

“I never knew anything else; the neighborhood school was always a part of my life.”

And while he is keenly aware that the world has changed since Flint Community Schools and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation collaborated to make Flint a national model for the practice of community education in the 1960s and ’70s, he believes that the city’s schools are still a place where educators can reach out to thousands of children and their parents every day.

“Community schools still work for a lot of families, especially if they’re struggling financially,” he said. “The school can support these families by providing the kind of activities that develop the whole child — academic, recreational and social.”

To accomplish this, DTM used federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers funding to maintain a robust afterschool program — one that provided access to technology, homework help and recreational activities that help make the building friendly and welcoming.

“It’s a principal’s job to run a safe and orderly building, one where teachers can teach and children can learn,” Berezny said. “I understand very well that our first responsibility is passing the MEAP (Michigan Educational Assessment Program) tests and meeting common core standards. But a school can’t accomplish that with a principal who keeps the community out.”

For the DTM staff, reaching out to the community started every year in late summer, when Berezny and his staff made it a practice to walk the neighborhoods, distribute fliers about school activities and meet the families they would be working with during the school year.

“It’s always an eye-opener for us. It helped teachers gain perspective about the children they’d have in their classrooms. The more you know about your students and their families, the better you can do your job,” he said.

“And it sent a very powerful message to our neighbors.”

Partnering with community to add family support services

Mark Evans sits at a desk.
Mark Evans.

Since 2008, DTM also has hosted a Family Resource Center, an initiative funded through the Michigan Department of Human Services. One of the first of its kind in Michigan, the center is staffed by two full-time social workers who partner with public, private, nonprofit and faith-based agencies to identify and funnel services to local families.

Escalating need and dwindling budgets pushed Berezny to become expert at aligning resources. Through the years, he recruited the help of a number of local organizations, partnering with a local college to bring nursing students on campus to deal with health and wellness issues, utilizing the services of a pediatric dentist from nearby Mott Children’s Health Center, and instituting an afterschool running and fitness club with the local Crim Fitness Foundation.

Because DTM also serves approximately 120 special needs students each year, a portion of the school’s special education budget was used to provide part-time counseling and mental health services.

For more than 10 years, DTM also partnered with Metro Community Development and nearby Kettering University to provide the services of a coordinator for community outreach at the school.

Mark Evans, now director for community development at Metro, served in that capacity under Berezny’s guidance.

“Dan’s philosophy is behind everything I am — everything I now do at Metro,” Evans said. “I must have walked the neighborhoods 100 times with him. He was involved with every student in that building. You have to have that kind of passion if you’re going to carry out the community school model.”

A principal’s legacy and impact on the school community

“We all love him. Mr. B knew every child’s name in the school. He has an open heart for everyone,” said Rajoi Shavers, a member of DTM’s Parent Advisory Council.

“Mr. B opened the door for parents who want to be a part of the school and show the students and teachers we care.”

Mother of two DTM students — one entering first and another fourth grade — Shavers has high praise for the school’s teaching and support staff as well.

“They’re phenomenal. We are going to miss Mr. B a lot, but we plan to support the new principal. We are a family here.”

Said Berezny of his departure: “The school will be fine. Over the years, I’ve managed to secure a great staff — and that’s one of the biggest challenges to principals — having a say in selecting the people who work with you.

“I’ve stayed at DTM because I had a staff who sincerely believed in what they do. And when you have that, you’re almost to the Promised Land.”

* The Mott intern program, known more formally as the Inter-University Clinical Preparation Program for Educational Leadership, was funded by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and operated through seven public universities in Michigan from 1964 to 1974. Yearlong graduate training in community education continued until 1982 through a network of university-based leadership centers across the U.S.