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2022 Graduates: Cooper Betke Leaving Giant Footprints on the Path to Becoming a Teacher

Cooper BetkeCooper Betke wants to be a teacher. 

He’s not the student who says he’s “always” wanted to be a teacher. In fact, when he started high school, he aspired to be an aeronautical engineer. 

But now, Betke, 18, has graduated from Kalamazoo Central with the Outstanding Senior Award from the Kalamazoo RESA Teacher Academy, which included a year of hands-on teaching experience, and he is heading to Adrian College to pursue a degree in education. 

Betke is the son of Carolyn and Tony Betke and big brother to Cameron, 8, and his late brother Spencer. 

Betke attended KingWestwood and Winchell elementary schools, Linden Grove Middle School. In high school, he ran cross country for three years, participated in forensics and the school musicals, and was the student council vice president this year. 

Along his career in KPS, Betke said, some of the greatest memories were created by the amazing teachers. 

Retired teacher Tracie James, who taught at King-Westwood Elementary, “saw my potential and pushed me forward. She always said, ‘I know you can do this.’” 

In fifth grade at Winchell, he says teacher Kathy Dahl “brought joy and happiness into everything she did.” 

And while he was always a good student, there was one teacher who told him he could be a better student. 

“Mrs. (Yonee) Kuiphoff, my eighth-grade science teacher, said this thing to me that really impacted me,” he said. “She said, ‘Cooper, the way you’re going through school is like you’re going down a river. Right now you’re just floating there. You’re not rowing. There’s no direction. You’re just letting it all go by. You need to start rowing.’ 

“That just really impacted me. I think that little phrase helped push me. It was like, ‘OK, I’ll go row.’ Without that little phrase, I think high school would have been completely different.” 

But when he talks about the person who really inspired him to want to become a teacher, the name that pops up is that of KC English teacher William Santilli, who Betke had freshman and senior year. 

Betke’s brother Spencer died by suicide during his freshman year, and Santilli made the year more bearable. When Betke returned to school after the funeral, many teachers offered their condolences and were there to talk, but he said he remembers one parent-teacher conference with Santilli. 

“He was talking to my parents and he said, ‘What grade would you like him to have? So, I can get one more thing off of his plate?’ He actually did something to show that he cared. That was special to me. After that, I thought I want to do that for other kids. I want to help.” 

Santilli is equally complementary of Betke. 

“Whatever ‘it’ is, Mr. Betke has ‘it.’ And it is not so much that he would be a great teacher, he will be great at just about anything he does,” Santilli said. “I also had an influential teacher. He was my high school English teacher Mr. Moore, and once he knew that I was to become a teacher, he had a perpetual request for me. I now bestow it on Mr. Betke. He must now change one more life, and the easy ones don’t count. Work toward the hard kind of change that no one else can see.” 

Betke has already helped make a difference at Kalamazoo Central, where administrators honored him at the Senior Awards ceremony with the Giant Footprints Award. 

The Outstanding Leader Award is granted to students who: “inspire others to do more, learn more and become more. These leaders know the way, go the way and show the way. They are driven by passion and not position. They are reflective of servant leadership by serving others first and then aspiring to lead in order to make a change in the lives of others and the community.” 

He said he was absolutely surprised by the award, but he did come into high school ready to follow Mrs. Kuiphoff’s admonishment. 

“I approached high school with a positive attitude. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to be here. The best way I can put it is in terms of how (Principal) Mrs. (Valerie) Boggan would put it: I wanted to leave a footprint.”