FERNDALE — She may not be faster than a speeding bullet or more powerful than a locomotive, but Rebecca Westrate is still a superhero in the eyes of many.
Westrate, the principal of Hamtramck High School and a Ferndale resident, was recently named a General Motors School Superhero for the month of September by the GM Foundation, the United Way for Southeastern Michigan and B.L.A.C. Detroit magazine. The program does not include a cash award or prize but is meant to pay tribute to local educators who are making a difference in the lives of students throughout metro Detroit.
Westrate, who is now in her third year as principal of Hamtramck, said that while she is honored to be recognized as a School Superhero, she is hesitant to take credit for the positive changes that have taken place at the school.
“I’m a fairly shy person, so I really prefer to focus on the students and their achievements,” she said. “Of course I’m excited to be able to highlight all the great things that are happening at our school, but I’m not the one responsible for those things. Our students are the drivers of their own success.”
According to the creators of the School Superhero program, Westrate was selected for the award because of the way she empowers her students. A key example of her approach could be seen last year, when she supported and encouraged a group of about 120 female Muslim students when they asked to hold a girls-only Princess Prom in order to stay true to their cultural beliefs.
Westrate has also implemented a communication system called Restorative Circles, which gives students a chance to discuss their thoughts and ideas about various topics; she has also created a detention program that, rather than after-school punishment, serves as a way for students to work one-on-one with a certified teacher and student advocate to look at how their actions affect others. She has even divided Hamtramck into three smaller schools, as well as an Opportunity Center for students who need extra guidance, in order to give each student the best chance for academic success.
Another unique quality of Hamtramck High School is its cultural diversity. More than 23 languages are represented within its student body — including Arabic, Bengali, Polish and Bosnian — making it one of the most diverse schools in the state of Michigan.
“I feel like our diversity is a strength, as well as a challenge for us,” Westrate said. “I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve created a school culture that meets the needs of all our students and creates high expectations for all of them, as well. We must be able to change and evolve to accommodate many different groups of students, while also meeting our own goals as a school.”
The School Superhero program began as a result of a larger educational project. Last year, the GM Foundation gave the United Way a $27.1 million grant to create a Network of Excellence within seven metro Detroit high schools. The objective was to increase the graduation rate at these schools and better-prepare their students for higher learning and advanced careers. Along the way, education experts working toward that goal met a number of inspiring teachers, principals and administrators who were making a major impact.
According to Sheri Marshall, manager of educational initiatives for the GM Foundation, “We’re really proud of all the terrific work that these educators have done to improve their schools. The School Superhero program is a great way to let the entire community know about these amazing educators who often go unsung and don’t get the recognition that they deserve.”
Marshall believes that Westrate epitomizes the qualities of a School Superhero, praising the principal for her outstanding professionalism, her unwavering commitment and her calm demeanor.
“Rebecca is a fabulous advocate for students and for public education,” she said. “She’s a tireless worker, but she doesn’t look tired, even though she has a very challenging job. She’s exactly the type of educator that we like to recognize, and we’re very proud of the progress that Hamtramck High School has made under her leadership.”
Mike Tenbush, vice president of education for the United Way for Southeastern Michigan, was especially impressed with Westrate’s intelligence, passion and communication skills.
“We’re looking for people who exemplify a model of educational excellence, and Rebecca certainly fits into that category,” he said. “You can tell that this is in her DNA — it’s part of who she is — and you can see it in the impact that she has had on her staff and students and on the school culture that she has created over there. She has definitely been the catalyst for her school’s transformation.”
More than anything, Westrate hopes that she has established a sense of community at Hamtramck: a safe and friendly environment where students believe that others are looking out for their best interests.
“When there are adults at school who kids feel like they can go to if they’re struggling, then they feel a lot more connected to their school,” she said. “We’ve tried to tailor all of our programming to meet the specific needs and desires of our students, and a big part of that is making sure that they feel comfortable when they walk through these doors.”
For more information on the GM School Superhero program, visit www.blacdetroit.com/gmsuperheroes.
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