Skyline Teacher Jeff Austin wins $10,000 award for Writing Center innovation

By Jeff Barr/
Skyline English teacher Jeff Austin, who excels as the director of the Skyline Writing Center, deflects attention when people try to give him credit. But the Michigan Department of Education recently awarded the 36-year-old educator $10,000 for a job well done.Austin was one of seven Michigan teachers named to the new statewide Innovative Educator Corps for his work directing the Skyline Writing Center, and he received a $5,000 stipend for his time and a $5,000 grant to expand the idea.In typical fashion, he gave the credit to others.

“It’s the students’ Writing Center, not mine,” Austin said. “It’s not the Jeff Austin Writing Center, it’s the Skyline High School Writing Center. I may facilitate it, but they run it.

“They do a remarkable job.”

Despite his attempt to downplay his efforts, Austin and six of his peers throughout Michigan were recognized Nov. 30 with the cash award for various educational innovations.

“To continue building Michigan to become a top-10 education state in 10 years, we need to take innovative and effective teaching practices and share them with every teacher in the state,” Interim State Superintendent Sheila Alles said. “Teachers play a key role in preparing Michigan’s students for successful futures and developing innovative ways to deliver instruction ignites a passion in students to learn and be innovative themselves.”

Austin has been recognized after creating the Writing Center in 2012, one year after he began teaching at Skyline. The Writing Center uses peer-to-peer techniques to help Skyline students with their writing, and partners with three organizations outside the school to help other students with literacy. Thousands of tutoring sessions have been conducted in the program’s seven years of existence.

As a member of the Innovative Educator Corps, Austin will receive a $5,000 grant that is to be used to expand, replicate and share innovative practices. Austin says he will use the $5,000 grant money to help other high schools in Washtenaw County obtain materials and hold conferences so they can open their own Writing Centers.

“We’ve seen what a great success the Writing Center has been at Skyline,” Austin said. “We want to expand the program throughout the county, and the grant money is a great opportunity to do so.”

Austin is taking his dedication to the Writing Center concept one step further. He is free to use the additional $5,000 stipend in any way he pleases. It is actually a payment to him for the time he has already put in. But he won’t keep the money; he has decided to also use that $5,000 to go toward additional Writing Centers in Washtenaw County. That’s a total of $10,000 toward new educational opportunities thanks to Austin.

“I’m part of the Secondary School Writing Center Association, and we did a census in 2016 and found there were 115 Writing Centers in U.S. High Schools,” Austin said. “Many of them simply punched “Writing Center” on Google to learn how to get started.

“We want to use the grant and stipend money to obtain professional materials so Washtenaw County high schools can get started with their Writing Centers the right way. It has been an invaluable resource at Skyline, and it will be great to see other schools in the county benefit, as well.”

As you might expect with an award that carries a $10,000 prize, there were many applicants to become a member of the new seven-member Innovative Educator Corps.

Applicants were nominated by peers, students, parents, community members and school-district administrators. Educators were required to document pupil academic achievement and successful implementation of innovative instructional methodology in preparing pupils for 21st century careers; and exemplify the passion, energy and professionalism of the teaching profession.

Due to the overwhelming number of applications received, the Michigan Department of Education will continue reviewing applications and anticipates additional Innovative Educator Corps members will be added in 2019.

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