Teacher Kelly VanDyke awarded ‘Educator of the Year’ by the Down Syndrome Association of West Michigan

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Grand Rapids elementary teacher Kelly VanDyke was recently recognized as the 2022 Educator of the Year by the Down Syndrome Association of West Michigan.

VanDyke, who teachers at Central Elementary in Kenowa Hills Public Schools, was celebrated for her successful, supportive approach to teaching children with Down syndrome on Saturday at the organization’s Winner’s Cup Benefit at the Cascade Hills Country Club.

She was selected out of 16 educators in Kent and Ottawa counties that were nominated through March of this year, according to Victoria Hart, communications director for the Down Syndrome Association of West Michigan (DSAWM).

VanDyke said she found out about the honor during one of her lessons and immediately started crying.

“My principal walked in, and she asked if I checked my email,” VanDyke said. “I said that I didn’t because I was teaching. Once I opened up the email, I just started crying. And once I had time to process, I was so grateful and honored that somebody would not only nominate me, but that I actually won.”

The award focuses on educators who exemplify a dedication to the educational and social success of students with Down syndrome, according to Hart. The association opened up applications for nominations on March 1 and stopped accepting them on World Down Syndrome Day on March 21.

Down syndrome is a condition in which a person has an extra chromosome, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The extra chromosome changes how a baby’s body and brain develop, which can cause both mental and physical challenges. Each year, about 6,000 babies born in the United States have Down syndrome, the CDC said.

“The educators that are being nominated for this award are those who have students with Down syndrome in their classroom,” Hart said. “And are going above and beyond to ensure that those accommodations are in place, that Individualized Education Plan (IEP) goals are being met.”

VanDyke is currently completing her 14th year of teaching a Kenowa Hills, over 12 of which have been in the Mild Cognitively Impaired Program (MiCi) classroom for kindergarten to 2nd grade.

At the event on Saturday, May 7, VanDyke had the chance to bring a guest and she chose to bring the Central Elementary parent who nominated her for the award, Stephanie Obenauf.

“When parents send in their nomination forms, they are asked to write a statement detailing why this educator should be nominated,” Hart said. “And Stephanie’s statement really blew us over.”

Obenauf spoke at the event, sharing her appreciation for VanDyke’s teaching style that has benefited her two daughters and other students with Down syndrome.

“My girls have grown by leaps and bounds this year, and absolutely love going to school every day,” Obenauf said. “And it’s due to Mrs. VanDyke’s teaching style of her. My kindergartener would go on weekends if we let her.”

VanDyke said she first knew her passion for teaching special education when she grew up close to a family, she babysat in her youth who had a son with Down syndrome. She said she was able to see the child she babysat, now as a young man during the Saturday event.

“I became close family friends with them, and they are part of the (school) board,” VanDyke said. “So, I got to see them and interact with the little boy I used to babysit. It made me feel proud and honored to be part of such a wonderful community.”

Central Elementary Principal Cherie Horner said that VanDyke creates an environment that is ”conductive to learning” and “warm and welcoming.”

“Kelly sets the bar high,” Horner said. “She lifts students up to that level and never ever teaches ‘down.’ She is her students’ biggest advocate and sees the ‘ability’ in disability. She is, without a doubt, 100 percent deserving of this award.”

VanDyke, who began teaching in 2008, graduated from Grand Valley State University and received endorsements in cognitive and emotional impairments.

She helped establish the Students United Navigating School (SUNS Program), a peer-to-peer program at Kenowa Hills, in which third, fourth, and fifth graders take turns teaching others about friendship and social skills.

In turn, the program has improved culture in the areas of understanding, tolerance, and kindness at Central Elementary, according to school leaders.

To learn more information about the Down Syndrome Association of West Michigan, head to www.dsawm.org.

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