Working in a school that has a 98% poverty level presents many challenges. Marilee Bylsma ’76 has faced those challenges head-on for her entire career, working as a special education teacher and administrator in the Detroit schools.

“Poverty creates immense barriers,” said Bylsma, “things I would have never thought of growing up in Wyoming, Michigan.”

Bylsma first encountered these challenges in Grand Rapids. “When I came to Calvin I joined KIDS, which is now called Service Learning, and I was assigned as a volunteer to a special ed school. I was there for about five minutes, and I knew this is what I wanted to do. The school was located in the heart of Grand Rapids; it was my first experience with urban kids, and they tugged at my heart.”

Upon graduating from Calvin, she moved to Detroit, where she began her career as a special education teacher, then became an assistant principal at Burt Elementary School, a principal at Samuel Gompers Elementary School, and eventually became the director of the Center for School Leaders, a leadership academy for current and future principals.

Bylsma credits Calvin for giving her the skills that supported her passion for education.

“When you walk into a classroom where there are minimal supplies, it throws you,” she said. “I was blown away by the condition that the children came to school, in terms of their own clothing or not having eaten breakfast or dinner the night before; it throws you, but you learn to find ways to overcome these challenges in their lives. So, it wasn’t just that I’m passionate about this, it’s about having the tools that you need to accomplish what you set out to do, and Calvin gave me those tools. Calvin taught me how to be a teacher.”

Spending more than four decades in urban education, Bylsma built her career around helping children overcome obstacles created by poverty.

“I once had a child in my office who the other kids were teasing,” she said. “I put my arm around him and asked if he knew why they were teasing him and he said, ‘No, why?’ I told him it’s because your breath smells. And he said, ‘We lost our toothbrush.’ So I went to our supply room and found toothbrushes, enough for his whole family, and wrote a name on each toothbrush. Who would have thought a toothbrush could be a barrier to a child’s ability to focus on learning?”

As the culture in the school Bylsma influenced began to change, achievement went up and learning improved. She challenged her staff to work together to achieve excellence.

During her tenure, Burt Elementary earned the Michigan Golden Apple Award for Improved Achievement, and Samuel Gompers Elementary was selected as a National Blue Ribbon Exemplary School.

Recognizing Bylsma’s contributions to the schools’ success stories, the superintendent tapped Bylsma to teach her strategies to principals and aspiring principals at the district’s leadership academy.

“I very quickly realized that leadership is not about how to manage paperwork,” said Bylsma. “It’s about how to inspire people to have a shared vision; it’s about how to meet the needs of your children; it’s about how to develop partnerships so that you can find the funds that you need to help your children.”

As an advocate for Detroit Public Schools, she also secured more than $1 million in outside funding for the school system.

Having come full circle in her career, Bylsma now is a coordinator of special education programs for charter schools in the Detroit area and provides professional development around the state on various topics such as creating a high-achieving learning community and leadership development.

And while she is appreciative of the accolades, including this award, Bylsma is more grateful for the platform it gives her for her message: “There are children out there that need you, urban kids in particular who deserve to have a quality education.”

“I was talking one day with the head of human resources, and he said to me, ‘You went to Calvin? I knew there was something different about you. Calvin grads, they all have something about them, like they’re mission-oriented or something.’

“I loved that because that is what we are supposed to do,” she said. “We go into the world, and we make a difference. That’s what I think about every day. Have I done what I was supposed to do today?

“And if I made a difference in one life, it’s all worth it.”

If you would like to learn more about how you can make a difference in the life of a child, email