Building a Bridge to Success

At a Youth Voice event held Friday, April 13th, decision makers from Calhoun County heard Marshall Alternative High School (MAHS) students discuss their changing educational experiences because of an innovative partnership that began this school year. For more information about the program, check out our Focus on Michigan’s Communities –Building a Bridge to Success: The Opportunity School.

At the event, each student was asked to talk about 1) what circumstances brought them to MAHS, 2) how their experience at the school is different from their former schools, 3) what barriers they still face that affect their educational success, and 4) what they want to be doing in 2-5 years.

The student’s stories were honest, funny, and compelling.  They each discussed barriers that still exist for their own situation like health and family issues, learning disabilities, the perceptions of their family and the public value of alternative education, and access to transportation – one student drives 70 miles round trip daily to attend school. The students identified common benefits and concerns about working toward a diploma through an alternative school rather than through a traditional high school setting.

School Rules vs. Teachers Caring.  All eight students said the main difference between their former school(s) and MAHS is that “the teachers really care.” When our moderator, Becky Rocho from Calhoun ISD, asked students to explain how they know the teachers care, they said, “I know what the rules are, they all keep me in line,” “We’re not allowed to have cell phones in class- you don’t get to talk on your phone while you’re at work, why do you need to have one in class,” and “We can only miss 7 days a semester, no job is going to let you miss 7 days without getting in trouble.”  Interestingly enough, the students all saw teacher’s involvement, clear rules and stricter school policies as their teachers caring about their success – as opposed to these things being a burden on students.

Job Connections.  Each student expressed concerns about finding jobs – and the connection that has to their ability to continue to excel. Some students said they need a job so that they can pay people for gas to get to school, or buy a car – others said they need help getting employers to see that attendance at an Alternative School is worthwhile, particularly when they feel like they’ve chosen MAHS as a positive step towards maturity and independence.  Afterwards, attendees at the event discussed developing a program in partnership with area businesses to place students in job shadowing or internship opportunities connected to student’s various career goals.

Study/Learning Habits.  When asked if there was anything else they wanted to share, one student said that what has helped him the most attending MAHS is that teachers have time in class to help.  He talked about feeling like just a number in his old school and all the rest of the students nodded in agreement.  This started a discussion about small class size and students comments included, “They won’t let you fail,” “They don’t just tell you what to do- they help you learn it,” “They give us one on one help in class,” and “They take time to be sure I understand.”  This theme was overwhelmingly reflected in attendee evaluations – the need for better funding to ensure smaller class sizes that allow more individual attention and learning.

Something to note is that the students’ perceptions weren’t unique – we see the same issues, concerns and benefits of the flexibility offered through alternative education options in programs across Michigan.  What is unique is that this program was developed in partnership with the leaders within the local public schools, community college and the local chamber of commerce.  The community has made a commitment to address the needs of their students – and by leveraging these partnerships the community will continue to grow this program that is not yet a year old.

Michigan’s Children continues to highlight innovative options for high school completion and paths to successful post-secondary and career that combat the current inequity in Michigan graduation rates for low-income students and students of color.  We work hard to move decision makers at all levels to better align state and federal policy to better support community leadership on this issue around the state.

-Beth Berglin