December 20, 2019

Reading specialist at Notre Dame Lower School says the school mission is "definitely and obviously the driving force behind NDPMA."

Denise Kelly-Kirk is the reading specialist for Notre Dame Lower School. She says NDPMA has ”so many opportunities for students to fine-tune their talents and grow in their Catholic faith.”

In 2016, the Michigan Legislature passed a law that requires schools to identify learners who are struggling with reading and writing and to provide additional help. The law stated that third graders may repeat third grade if they are more than one grade level behind, beginning with the 2019-2020 school year.


Last year, less than half of the state's third graders — 44.4% — met reading proficiency standards.

While this new law applies only to public school students in Michigan, that doesn't mean private, independent schools are off the hook. In fact, student proficiency requirements in reading as well as "writing and arithmetic" generally are tougher than public curricula because private schools typically seek more rigorous independent accreditation, membership and authorization from the likes of ISACS, AdvancED and International Baccalaureate.

That is principally also true for Notre Dame and its students as reading proficiency, especially at the lower school, which opened first in Waterford in 2003, has been a top priority for years. 

Nobody knows that more than Denise Kelly-Kirk, the lower school's reading specialist since 2012.

"Having a reading specialist in the lower school allows for students to get the extra help they need to be successful and happy in school," said Kelly-Kirk, who holds bachelor's degrees in elementary education and early childhood education from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and a master's in literacy with a reading specialist endorsement (PK-12) from the University of Nebraska-Omaha. "When the extra help is available at such a young age, students typically really flourish in the later grades."

'The perfect school'

Diana Atkins, Notre Dame Lower School's principal, agrees with Kelly-Kirk and said her reading specialist been a godsend for her students as well as for colleagues.

"The lower school is fortunate to have a reading specialist like Denise," Atkins said. "She is fully committed to ensuring student success in reading and also works closely with core classroom teachers and students on strategies for increased reading skills. In addition, Denise is always willing to help anyone with in the school." 

Atkins noted that Kelly-Kirk's two sons graduated from Notre Dame though their mom never got a chance to teach them at the school. Keegan NDP'11 and Kyler NDP’15, began at the high school and middle school, respectively, before their mom was on staff. 

"My family moved from Colorado to Michigan in June of 2009," Kelly-Kirk said. "We were looking for a Catholic school for our sons and after visiting NDPMA, we decided that it would be the perfect school for our family. Keegan started as a junior and Kyler started in seventh grade. After NDP, Keegan went to Michigan State University and Kyler attended Columbia University in New York City."

Notre Dame wasn't Kelly-Kirk's first job in education — not by a long shot.

Kelly-Kirk is working with the pre-kindergarten 3 class at the lower school.

She's actually been a teacher for 31 years in Catholic, private, public and charter schools located in Nebraska, Iowa, Colorado and Michigan. She has taught students in Pre-K through fifth grade with most of her career in kindergarten and first grade classrooms.

Shortly after moving to the Detroit area from Colorado, Kelly-Kirk started volunteering at Notre Dame's lower school and when the position of reading specialist was posted in 2012, she applied and started working initially part time, though now it's a full-time position.


Reading = foundation

She said that when she first experienced Notre Dame years ago as a volunteer, a number of things made a big impact on her both as a parent and an experienced educator. 

"What impressed me most about Notre Dame was the feeling of community and the abundance of opportunities for students and parents to get involved in the school," she said. "Plus, there are so many opportunities for students to fine-tune their talents and grow in their Catholic faith. But, hands down, the school mission is definitely and obviously the driving force behind NDPMA."

Now, after nearly seven years at Notre Dame, Kelly-Kirk easily calls out what brings her to the school's Pontiac campus at least five days a week from the Waterford Township home she shares with her husband, Dale, and family. 

"I believe the most important part of my job is to help students become confident learners who love to read," she said. "I love the fact that I am able to help students become lifelong learners and avid readers.

"I also thoroughly enjoy collaborating with our classroom teachers to help them develop meaningful reading lessons that meet the needs of all students in the lower school. I'm able to work with individual students, and with small and large groups of kids, and I've initiated school-wide reading activities that hopefully build a real excitement for reading and learning." 

When asked what career she might be in if it wasn't education, she was unequivocal. 

"I can’t imagine doing anything else," she said. "Teaching has provided so much joy in my life and I’m sure I chose the best profession for me. I've always enjoyed working with children and feel that reading truly is the foundation for future success. So having the opportunity to affect students' lives daily in such a positive and foundational way has made teaching the best job I could ever imagine."

Comments or questions? mkelly@ndpma.org.

Follow Notre Dame on Twitter at @NDPMA.
About Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy

Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy is a private, Catholic, independent, coeducational day school located in Oakland County. Notre Dame Preparatory School enrolls students in grades nine through twelve and has been named one of the nation's best 50 Catholic high schools (Acton Institute) four times since 2005. Notre Dame's middle and lower schools enroll students in pre-kindergarten through grade eight. All three school are International Baccalaureate "World Schools." NDPMA is conducted by the Marist Fathers and Brothers and is accredited by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States and the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement. For more on Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy, visit the school's home page at www.ndpma.org

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