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Mid-Michigan Schools Look for New Ways to Give Students Path to Success

Virtual classes replacing some alternative ed 'we are ready for the culture change

Kathleen Lavey
klavey@lsj.com
January 24, 2011

Laurie Alber's commute to school is short. The laptop computer that connects the 16-year-old Waverly student to her high school classes is in her bedroom at home.

Each day, she logs on to read, do quizzes and complete papers for the two classes she's currently taking, health and history. She has daily online contact with teachers and meets in person with a mentor each week.

"It's a lot different than going to high school," she said. But for her? "It really works."

School districts across mid-Michigan are looking for new ways to engage kids in learning. A key trend: replacing traditional alternative high schools with online options.
Among the goals: Graduate kids within four years, as required by federal No Child Left Behind statutes; bring dropouts back into the fold; and give kids who can't take the social pressures of high school another option for success.

"It's a culture change, and if you ask me, we are ready for the culture change," said Sergio Keck, director of specialized programs for the Lansing School District. Working with the Virginia-based contractor AdvancePath, it set up an online learning academy at Sexton High School last fall and expands the program to Eastern and Everett high schools beginning today. The cost: up to $2.7 million over five years.

"We know there is a high percentage of kids that have dropped out of our schools and we're hoping this is one of the avenues that can help them graduate," Keck said.

Two online models

There are two online learning models currently being used in mid-Michigan:

  • Students come to a computer lab where they complete coursework, supervised by teachers. Lansing's AdvancePath academies fit this mold, in which students choose a four-hour morning, afternoon or later-day shift to complete their work. Waverly's Ombudsman program, one of two online options the district offers, fits thi s mold.
  • Students work at home or wherever they feel comfortable, using laptops and meeting regularly with mentors. Waverly offers that program, working with contractor The American Academy.

That's also the model for a new charter school created by the Eaton Intermediate School District, Relevant Academy. This semester, it will serve 30 students, ages 16 to 19, who have dropped out of school.

After an on-campus orientation session, they work at home on laptops, taking courses through Michigan Virtual University and meeting weekly with mentors. Also part of the required curriculum: a Dale Carnegie leadership course.

"I think all our districts are looking for new, innovative ways to keep the kids engaged and to help make them successful," said Angie Zeller, associate superintendent of the Eaton ISD, which serves Charlotte, Eaton Rapids, Grand Ledge, Maple Valley and Potterville, as well as the one-room Oneida Strange School.

"There's a broad range of students that need a different learning style," she said.

Divided school board

In Lansing, the AdvancePath academies at each high school replace the district's traditional alternative ed program, which was based at the Hill Center.

A divided school board decided to abandon that educational model - despite protests from teachers and some families who had used the program - because graduation rates were simply too low. That counts against a school district when it's being judged and scored on meeting federal No Child Left Behind rules.

About 45 percent of students in the Education Options program graduated on time, and the program has failed to make adequate yearly progress under federal No Child Left Behind rules for three years.

Need for flexibility

The Holt school board, which also is considering new possibilities for alternative education, recently heard from district families who opposed any move to online learning. Its current alternative program, Holt Central High School, serves 110 to 120 students.

Holt Superintendent Johnny Scott said the district has not made any decisions on the future of alternative education.

"Right now we are exploring what the options are," he said. "We're simply out there, just looking."

Rebekan Richards is chief academic officer for The American Academy, which provides Waverly Community Schools with the program Laurie Alber uses. Waverly partners with the Ingham Intermediate School District on its Ombudsman program.

The American Academy program offers similar programs in five states to about 500 students total.
"These are kids who can't or won't attend a traditional high school or even a storefront location because of their need for flexibility of time or place," Richards said. "Our program addresses that need for flexibility, but also accountability and support to be a success."

Community support

Keck said it will require community support to help make the new alternative programs work. Volunteers are welcome. So are companies and organizations that could help by offering work experience and interviewing skills to students in alternative programs.

"Our city, our state, our nation are struggling with the graduation rate and the dropout rate," he said. "We are putting a very strong focus on getting to graduation and being prepared for the next step they're going to take in life."

Originally posted in the Lansing State Journal.