Fewer alternatives

MSCS cuts alternative school, BRPS transitions to new virtual format

ALTERNATIVE SETTING: Students at Morley Stanwood Alternative School line up for their annual Christmas brunch last school year. The MSCS board of education voted Monday to eliminate the program due to funding issues. (Pioneer file photo)

MECOSTA COUNTY — Students who do not fit in the traditional high school mold are finding fewer alternative options locally.

Morely Stanwood Community Schools board of education voted unanimously on Monday to close the district’s alternative school. Big Rapids Public Schools and Chippewa Hills School District now are the only districts in the Mecosta-Osceola Intermediate School District that offer alternative schools. Evart Public Schools and Reed City Area Public Schools closed their alternative programs within the last three years.

“Schools are learning to adapt to this population. Technology is helping with that,” said Curt Finch, MOISD superintendent. “A lot of those kids are staying in our neighborhood, so we need to have options so they can be gainfully employed.”

One option that appeals to alternative students is the Mecosta-Osceola Career Center, Finch said. He noted that even as student enrollment across the MOISD has declined in recent years, the career center’s enrollment has remained stable.

“Kids see it as a viable option,” he said. “It’s high-tech and meets kids’ needs.”

About nine years ago, the MOISD ran an alternative school program while some local districts offered their own. Local districts requested the MOISD discontinue its program so they could serve their own students, but it has been a struggle to continue funding the alternative programs since then.

The graph shows the trend in four-year dropout rates for local districts in the Mecosta-Osceola Intermediate School District. Dropout rates may be affected by fewer schools offering alternative schools for students who struggle in a traditional high school setting. (Pioneer graphic)

Facing a $890,000 deficit going into the 2013-14 school year, MSCS doesn’t have money available to continue the alternative program. The board voted in June to completely discontinue use of the Morley Elementary building, which previously housed Morley Stanwood Alternative School.

“It’s frustrating to cut a successful program for at-risk students,” said Superintendent Roger Cole. “But I simply don’t have the money to fund it.”

MSCS has operated an alternative school since the MOISD closed its program, enrolling 35 students in recent school years and graduating about 10 seniors in the spring.

Roger Cole, MSCS superintendent

“They function as a separate school. They had their own graduation, homecoming and class trip,” Cole said. “That’s going to go away. But their requirements to graduate were no different.”

High school administrators are working on a schedule that would allow former alternative school teacher Ryan Redinger, who now will teach high school physics, to dedicate up to three hours of the school day to working with alternative school students.

Still, Cole admits, the modified format will not provide the same services to students.

“The role of the program (at the alternative school) was more about the environment, the delivery (of material) and the ratio of teachers and students,” he said.

Cheri Reed, who taught at MSAS for four years and now will teach English at Morley Stanwood Middle School, also is disappointed to see the alternative school disbanded.

“It’s hard to watch the program change that we worked so hard to make successful,” she said. “I feel bad for the kids who really need an alternative setting. I worry about some of the kids falling through the cracks.”

Some students will be successful back in a traditional high school setting, Reed predicted, but others may drop out or move to other districts that still have an alternative school.

“As long as they’re getting their education, that’s the most important thing,” she said.

Students are drawn to an alternative school because the smaller class size allows for more one-on-one time with teachers, the ability for students to work at their own pace and more flexibility in the time frame for them to complete their work, Reed added.

“One of the words used often with the students was it felt like a family. We were very close. It almost felt they were all my kids at times,” she said. “I hope I can keep in touch with the kids, check up on them as they transition and help them out if they still need it.”

Students who previously attended alternative schools in other districts may find a new option in BRPS’ virtual school to be unveiled at the start of the 2013-14 school year.

Tim Haist, BRPS superintendent

The district has run New Directions High School for nine years, enrolling about 40 students each year in recent years. After receiving a seat time waiver from the Michigan Department of Education in July, BRPS is transitioning to a new format for its alternative school as Big Rapids Virtual School.

The virtual school will give students more flexibility in completing their work in school or from home, said Superintendent Tim Haist. However, the courses will not be completely online. Administrators still are finalizing details, but Haist said the plan is to require a certain amount of time be spent in the physical school building each week. Students also will maintain weekly communication with a mentor.

Details of the virtual school format will be released during a presentation at BRPS’ board meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 12 in the high school media center.

Tim Buckingham, who has been principal of Brookside Elementary School for 11 years, will fill the part-time mentor position overseeing Big Rapids Virtual School. Other school support staff will continue to work with alternative students, and Buckingham will be responsible for monitoring students’ progress.

“Our goal is to provide opportunity for the kids who, for whatever reason, haven’t been able to stay in school, be successful in school or just need more flexibility,” Haist said.

An increase in private companies promoting online schools prompted BRPS to move forward with its own virtual alternative, Haist said. New Directions operated on an online course system, which allowed students to work at their own pace through various subjects. The seat time waiver opens up a new variation on that.

“We knew it was difficult for students to spend all their time with a computer every day,” Haist said. “We feel it’s important to maintain relationships with our kids. … The state has allowed these companies to form. They’re allowed to draw these students, but we don’t think they’ll be as invested in our students.”

Finch echoed Haist’s concern about private companies launching online schools.

“One thing I’m worried about is the companies coming out of the woodwork and saying they can offer these services,” he said. “It’s good in that it helps provide opportunity, but it’s sad that they have no accountability. If it doesn’t work out, they just dump (the students) back into the local district. The kids just lost time.”

Haist hopes enrollment in Big Rapids Virtual School will at least match enrollment at New Directions. The possibility of the virtual format drawing students from neighboring districts is no different than the school of choice agreement schools in the MOISD already follow, which says schools will accept students from beyond the geographical boundaries of their district.

“If there are students looking for an opportunity, we want to give it to them,” Haist said.

EPS discontinued its alternative program going into the 2012-13 school year after closing the building in 2011-12. The program operated within Evart High School for one year before administrators decided to switch to a credit-recovery class. Now students can go to the class whenever it fits into their schedule and work through an online program to make up credits.

“It was a cost-savings move,” Superintendent Howard Hyde said of the decision to end EPS’ alternative school program that had been in place since before he became superintendent 16 years ago. “When it was in its own building, there weren’t enough kids to (justify) the folks we were paying to run it.”

EPS’ dropout rate increased from 16.7 percent for the class set to graduate in 2011 to 19.6 percent for the 2012 cohort, which graduated the same school year EPS moved the alternative school into the high school. Hyde said the increase in dropouts cannot be tied solely to the elimination of EPS’ alternative school.

“I would guess there are other factors involved there because we didn’t officially cut it until this school year,” he said, although he did not have specifics on the other factors that would affect dropout rate.

About three years ago, RCAPS consolidated its alternative school into the high school before eliminating the program completely. Board of education president Dan Boyer said it was a budget reduction decision.

The district’s dropout rate was at less than 5 percent when the alternative school closed, and it since has increased to 10 percent for the 2012 cohort — the same level as the 2010 cohort.

CHSD continues to run Mosaic School, the alternative program that graduated 17 seniors in 2013. Mosaic director Dawn Hawley was unavailable for further comment.


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