Summer Connections: DCS Alternative Education Serves At-Risk Students Year-Round

In a large, sunlit room at the Copeland building, two students work at computers while program director Julie Snider’s friendly dog, Otis, wanders around in search of a loving pat or treat. The room is a bit disordered, filled with boxes and bins as the staff readies the program to be moved into their new facility at 8100 Shield Rd, the recently-named Louie Ceriani Alternative Education building. But the environment is warm and inviting, exactly as Snider and program social worker, Shelley Rychener, intend it to be – a safe, welcoming space for students to drop by at any time, summer included.

“This is a great place for students who struggle with a traditional high school setting,” Snider shares. “All schools need a setting like this because one school does not meet all needs.”

“Dexter High School is a big place, fast moving and academically challenging,” she continues. “For some students, walking into a classroom of thirty kids can be very overwhelming.”

Creating the Alternative Education Program

In 2016, Superintendent Chris Timmis and the Dexter Board of Education approved the development of the Alternative Education program for high school students. The four-year graduation rate at DHS for 2013-2015 averaged around 91%, and the district recognized that some students needed more individualized help in order to graduate.

Julie Snider, a teacher for twenty-five years at Mill Creek Middle School, was brought on board to spearhead the program. “It was a natural fit,” Snider says. “I believe that everyone can learn, but these kids just weren’t succeeding.” She believes customization is the key – “We do what we need to for each individual student.”

Snider and program administrator Ken Koenig (DHS Assistant Principal) visited alternative education programs in Saline and Brighton for ideas, and even travelled to a highly-successful school in Kentucky to observe best practices. Dexter’s program was initially staffed by Snider as the general education teacher, along with a special education teacher and a drop-in social worker who came about once a week.

Students in the program, mostly juniors and seniors, have been identified as falling behind by a graduation watch committee comprised of Dexter High School staff and administrators. These students have past traumas, an atypical home life, or other life-altering situations that have impacted their ability to keep pace with their peers in school. The number of students each year varies, but usually falls between ten and twenty participants.

Program social worker Shelley Rychener describes their students as self-conscious with serious trust issues due to past experiences in and out of school. “The emotional needs of these students are high,” Rychener shares. “They are very defensive and need the respect and dignity we give them here.”

It was based on these needs that Snider quickly realized a drop-in social worker was not enough to effectively serve the program’s students. A more consistent presence was needed, which is when Rychener was brought on board; initially she came in one day a week, then the position was expanded to half-time every day. Rychener also partners with Lauren Thompson (Creekside Assistant Principal) as the program’s graduation coach. A full-time special education teacher rounds out the staff: Katie Heikkila, who moved over Mill Creek.

What Dexter Alternative Education Looks Like

Students in the Alternative Education program mostly take online classes, where they can work at their own pace. In addition, Snider recently created several English lessons for the group as a whole, with an eye to expanding the program to include more direct classroom teaching in the future. Group discussions often take place during the school day as well, covering topics such as job preparation, mental health and life skills.

Some students are dual enrolled at Washtenaw Community College, setting them up for successful continuation of their education after graduation. Grace, a current Dexter student, is planning to dual enroll at WCC at the beginning of her senior year. Before joining the Alternative Education program, Grace had stopped going to school altogether. “Now she hardly ever misses a day,” Snider says.

“This is a way better environment for me,” Grace says, working at her laptop. Even though it’s July, she has come in today to work on a summer class and to share that she has a job interview later in the day. Both Snider and Rychener applaud her for coming in to study and ask if she needs any help preparing for her interview.

Another student, Brendan, has come in this morning as well. He is a senior and was recently hired at Wendy’s, set to start his job this afternoon. Brendan is especially fond of Snider’s dog, Otis, taking breaks to walk him outside. “I love it here,” he says, “it’s fun and a good environment.”

“It’s still school, so it’s not all fun,” Brendan continues with a smile. “But, it’s comforting, with people here you can talk to and relate to.”

Having the building open to students during the summer is a new component of the program, initiated just this year. “For some kids, this is home,” Snider shares, “and three months of summer is a long time to be away.” Being available during the summer months provides more continuity for students, extremely important for at-risk kids.

Another key component of the Alternative Education program is field trips to local businesses to learn about possible career paths. Students have visited LaFontaine Chevrolet in Dexter where they toured the service and sales departments, the main branch of Old National Bank in Ann Arbor to learn about careers in the banking industry, and Domino’s Farms for information on marketing, design and even food testing. A trip to Delta Airlines at Detroit Metropolitan Airport was a particularly exciting opportunity to learn about jobs in the airline industry, with the highlight being a tour inside the air traffic control tower. These field trips help to widen the students’ knowledge of jobs and careers they might not otherwise consider.

Interviewed this summer, both staff and students were looking forward to moving into their new facility this fall. The building features a large flexible learning space that can be divided as needed, and a wet-lab for science and other purposes. There is a spacious office for the staff, and a utility room with laundry facilities for student use. Including the construction of a dedicated Alternative Education building as part of the 2017 DCS Bond reiterates to both students and the community the district’s commitment to helping all kids finish school.

Chime After Chime: Making Music Together

In an effort to foster teamwork skills, self-discipline and attention to detail, as well as to just have fun, Snider created the Chime After Chime choir for Alternative Education students in Spring 2018. With significant grant money from The Educational Foundation of Dexter, Snider was able to purchase a set of chimes and accompanying equipment and supplies for the choir. Students work cooperatively learning how to play the chimes, and have performed for local senior centers and adult foster homes.

This initiative puts students on a level playing field, as none have played the chimes before and all are learning together. They re-learn the lesson that it’s okay to fail in a safe and supportive environment, as most have their school career being categorized as failing and suffering the low self-confidence which accompanies that label. In chime choir everyone makes mistakes while learning to play, but students are taught to accept errors as a necessary part of the learning process. Mastery of the instrument is not the goal, but rather learning the value of perseverance in spite of obstacles or perceived failure.

A Community of Support

In addition to the Dexter School district, mentorship and assistance from several Dexter community organizations combine to form a network of support for Alternative Education students. The Dexter Rotary’s STRIVE program (Students Taking a Renewed Interest in the Value of Education) provides mentors for students, as well as some financial assistance for the program in general. STRIVE offers scholarships for graduating seniors, which consists not only of a monetary award, but also a 9-month health and fitness membership at the Dexter Wellness Center and, perhaps most important, a post-graduate mentor who maintains regular communication with the recipient.

Another contributor to the program is the Dexter Lions Club, which also offers scholarships and mentorship to students, as well as financial assistance to the program. Recently, a Dexter Lions Club member, a retired firefighter, was able to secure a $250 gift from the Retired Firefighters Fund for additional equipment for the Chime After Chime choir.

The Educational Foundation of Dexter is also major supporter, funding scholarships, grant money for the Chime after Chime program and other program assistance.

Continuing to Move Forward

“We are always looking for different kinds of programming to serve more students,” Snider says. “There is no manual,” she continues, “the program can and will change in direct relation to the students’ needs.”

The Alternative Education program has a very high success rate and, in combination with other Dexter School initiatives, the district’s graduation rate is now 96%. Graduates from the program have moved on to the workforce, completed community college and one student is currently working to transfer to the University of Michigan.

Many graduates remain in touch with Snider and Rychener, calling or texting to update them on their personal and professional lives. This continuing communication speaks to the relationships built during their time in the program and the care and respect provided each student by the Alternative Education staff. The connection doesn’t end with graduation; graduates know they can come back or call anytime and receive the same support, assistance and care as when they were students.

Graduates from the program have moved on to the workforce, completed community college and one student is currently working to transfer to the University of Michigan.

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