Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Katie Dentzman’s transition from quiet 6th grader to world expert in her field

Vaughn Springer
Nov 17, 2021 2:01:04 PM

Starting middle school is a big transition for everyone. Students are in bigger class and school sizes, taking on more responsibility in the classroom, and socializing becomes a lot more important. This kind of change isn’t easy for some students - one of them being Katie Dentzman.

Katie, now an alumna of Black River Public School in Holland, started her middle school journey at a traditional public school where the number of 6th graders alone totaled more than 600. This made for larger class sizes and limited chances to learn more in-depth or at advanced levels. Katie’s parents noticed the lack of stimulation and began their search for a new option.

A close friend’s mom was a board member at a newer charter school, Black River Public School (BRPS). After some discussions, BRPS seemed like a promising option. They were a college preparatory school with a wide range of electives and the class sizes small enough for individualized attention for each learner. After enrolling in 2002, Katie graduated as part of the class of 2007, Black River’s 7th graduating class.

I always felt very comfortable at Black River because it felt like such a different learning model. The teachers were there to try new things, to be creative, to be engaged and that really came through. I got all sorts of different experiences that didn’t necessarily seem relevant, especially because I ended up as a sociology professor, but I actually think [these experiences] made me a well-rounded person which contributed to my success in college and graduate school and beyond.

- Katie Dentzman

While she now holds both a master's and Ph.D. in sociology as well as the title of “world expert” on the social aspects of herbicide resistance, Katie looks back on her time at BRPS fondly, attributing a lot of her successes to knowledge and skills she received while there. She notes that a lot of her education was reflected in handling the transition into undergraduate studies and how she had to be a creative and critical thinker during her post-graduate degrees. The charter school helped prepare her for everything from winning a scholarship essay thanks to practicing timed writing exams in English, to learning relaxing hobbies, like knitting, she’d continue throughout life to help her combat stress.

A thing that was really important was learning to be self-directed and creative. In undergrad, a lot of what you do is rote memorization, but in grad school, you’re expected to become your own scholar. To take that background information and parlay it into research and new work. At the point of being in grad school, everyone's an expert in their field. What makes you stand out is the ability to think critically and have an imagination you can apply to concepts and background material. I think being in a charter school that valued those kinds of experiences really helped me.

- Katie Dentzman

An advertisement for Staples Business accounts

Back in middle and high school, if you asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, the answer was absolutely not a teacher. Katie recalls many of her peers being excited about being in the classroom, but she wanted to do something she felt was more applicable. It was during a walk the summer after her freshman year of college at Central Michigan University that she realized what she wanted to do: solve the problems around her. She promptly switched her major to environmental sciences and sociology. She wanted to study the environment and how human behavior influenced it. Now, Katie is an assistant professor of Rural Sociology at Iowa State University teaching and researching agricultural sustainability and the social systems related to it.

For my most recent position, I had to give a presentation on my teaching philosophy. [The presentation] made me sit down and think through this philosophy I had - but where did it come from? It really felt like it started at Black River. It was a completely different learning environment [than the larger school system]. The people, the class sizes, having hands-on experiences, taking creative and AP courses helped me think about what I valued and what I find effective in teaching and get this teaching to the 'whole student' perspective. I didn’t really envision myself being a teacher, even when I got into undergrad and grad school I was a lot more focused on research, but I also started to really love teaching. It’s invaluable to my research and my research is invaluable to my teaching. It's really something that is intertwined entirely that I really didn’t think about it that way when I started."

- Kaite Dentzman

She continued to study sociology at Michigan State University for her master's degree and Ph.D. where she joined a professor studying the sociological aspects of weeds resistant to herbicides, like RoundUp, in agriculture. This project has evolved over her entire career; she started with theories of why farmers were so reliant on chemical herbicides and now, four years post-doctoral degree, is putting these new and innovative ideas into action through implementation of community pest resistance management groups and advising the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Katie has an impressive CV that covers research across the board in agricultural sustainability from a sociological lens. Some other topics she’s covered include representation of women and queer farmers, biodegradable plastic mulch adoption, ethical equine mortality composting, food insecurity, climate change, and agritourism.

If she had the opportunity to go back and talk to herself in high school, what would she say? Stop being so stressed about everything! It’s more important to learn, to be creative, and to be innovative than it is to get straight A’s.

It’s okay not to know what you’re going to do, because I didn’t know what I was going to do until I was doing it. Some people have this whole big life plan scheduled out ahead of them. That was not necessarily me, but I felt like I should have [a plan]. Even as recently as last year - I was a postdoc, I didn’t know what I was doing with my life. I briefly took a job with the USDA. For a while that felt like failure because I had been so focused on getting into academia. It really forced me to take a step back and think ‘hey plan B is just different than plan A. It’s not worse. In some ways it's better. I think we put so much pressure on students and on academics to always know what they’re doing and to know their path. It’s okay for it to be flexible."

- Katie Dentzman

Black River Public School has continued to grow since opening in 1996. In 2021, they were ranked the number one open enrollment high school in Michigan and in the top 500 of all, roughly 17,000, high schools in the entire country.
Will Carleton Academy students participate in walk to school day.

Let's get social

Get more charter news & successes!

Like us on Facebook

Subscribe by Email

No Comments Yet

Let us know what you think