At the beginning of the 2016 school year, Dexter Community Schools initiated a new Alternative Education program designed to help give students a chance to benefit from a non-traditional high school experience. Dexter High School Vice Principal Ken Koenig and Graduation Coach Lauren Thompson reported to the Board of Education on the programs progress in its inaugural year.
Koenig describes it in a nutshell: “The program is set up to give students who are at risk of not graduating a chance to receive a high school diploma.” He goes on to explain, “This program has addressed a long standing need in our district. By giving students a different avenue to pursue a high school diploma, it changes people’s lives.”
Dexter Community Schools Alternative Education personalizes student’s curriculum under the supervision of dedicated, caring, and skilled instructors trained in innovative teaching techniques and proven intervention strategies to prepare them for a job, further vocational training, or secondary education upon high school graduation. The goal is to support and encourage students who may be frustrated with traditional learning and could be in danger of dropping out.
Lauren Thompson’s job as Graduation Coach is to identify kids with risk factors that may prevent them finishing high school. As early as 8th grade, Thompson works with families, educators, and community organizations on initiatives that can move them forward in general education. If these initiatives don’t work, a recommendation can be made to move them into the Alternative Education program.
High school dropout statistics are startling. A Frontline feature recently reported on the critical need for helping kids finish school. Statistics include:
According the the U.S. Census Bureau, the average dropout can expect to earn an annual income of 20,241; $10,386 less than the average high school graduate and $36,424 less than someone with a bachelor’s degree.
According to the Department of Education, high school dropouts experience a poverty rate of 30.8 percent while those with a college degree had a poverty rate of 13.5 percent.
A Northeastern University study shows incarceration rates were a whopping 63 times higher than those who stay in school. The study suggests no direct link between dropping out of high school and prison, but suggests dropouts are exposed to socioeconomic pressures that are likely gateways to crime.
“My whole job is building relationships with these kids,” says Thompson. “Kids work better one on one and that’s where the relationship is established. Once you have that relationship, you have their trust. When they know they can trust you, they’re ready to move forward.”
Koenig reported to the board that in its first year, 19 students are enrolled in the program. Of these, 3 students are graduating early and 4 students are on track to graduate on time. None of these students were on track to graduate high school at all. Of the non-seniors, 3 are in dual enrollment at Washtenaw Community College.
For students enrolled in Alt Ed, a typical school day is: attending class at Copeland Administrative Building supervised by a general education teacher and a special education teacher. Students use an online based credit recovery program that allows them to move at their own pace in catching them back up and moving them forward in their educational requirements for graduation. Students attend from 8:30 A.M. to 2:30 P.M.
The program has partnered with the juvenile court system, Washtenaw Community College, Dexter Wellness Center, area mental health systems, and other local groups such as Dexter’s Rotary and Lion’s clubs. Board member Dr. Julie Schumaker, who is also President-elect for Dexter Rotary Club, commented that Rotary is designating $8,000 in scholarship funds specifically for Alternative Education.
As a science teacher, Lauren Thompson was always drawn to “students that were under represented,” that is, students who weren’t clicking with the general educational system. “When Superintendent Timmis asked me to take on this new position as Graduation Coach, I jumped at it” she explains. And while she admits it is emotionally draining, Lauren finds it incredibly rewarding and wouldn’t change a thing about her job. “Kids who have wanted nothing to do with school experience are now involved in sports and wearing Dexter Dreadnaught apparel,” she says. “I’m glad I can be a part of that kind of turn-around.”
But the most powerful endorsements come from the students themselves. Here are a few affirmations taken from the website.
“This school is not as stressful as the high school. I feel I have more time to complete my course work so I don’t feel as rushed.”
“There is more teacher attention for students in this school. We get more help from teachers so we can do more work.”
“We can study one class for an extended time, not having to follow an hourly schedule.”
“Students are left to work at their own pace and as long as they are making progress, they can do other things. No one tells me not to draw or read as long as I’m getting my work done.”
“We still have [high school] drama, but less of it, so it’s easier to get things done … it is a less distracting school.”
Superintendent Chris Timmis states that overall, “It’s really going, for eight months into it, much better than anticipated.” Vice Principal Koenig concurs, “It’s been eye opening for me in my 25 years of education to work with these kids and see that once they get a glimpse that there’s hope how they just take off.”
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