The Ferndale Board of Education approved a plan on Monday night that will change the district's alternative education program at Taft Education Center to a personalized system that features no direct instruction, an online component with school-provided laptops and in-person support from case managers.
The district will spend about $3.9 million on the new Ferndale Digital High School program, which will be implemented starting this fall. The program is a complete overhaul of the district's current, more traditional program and attempts to re-engage students with a research-backed approach that emphasizes flexibility.
Renee Heard, school improvement specialist for the Ferndale Public Schools, presented the plan Monday. Heard - who has a background in urban education and the creation and oversight of urban high school programs - said the key to the program's success is fidelity.
"The timeline does not intimidate me," said Heard, who will serve as the project director. "I think that the level of commitment, dedication and passion around this project is evident with everyone we talk to internally. I know that regardless of what it takes we will get this done."
Though some resources will be allocated differently - for example, the school must provide laptops for each student in order to meet school no-seat-time regulations - Superintendent Gary Meier said the program cost is about the same as what the district is currently spending on alternative education.
"It is, from a basic cost perspective, about equal to what we have spent before," he said. "How we're spending the money is different."
The plan also involves closing Crossroads, a facility based in Southfield where some of the district's alternative education programs are offered, which will save the district about $250,000 in rent, Meier said.
He said the alternative education program needed a change.
"It is not a program that is moving kids academically in the way that it needs to move kids," Meier said. "The other problem is our enrollment has been declining [in the program] and we think that enrollment decline is due to the fact that we're not meeting the needs of the kids."
While most programs are either done completely in the classroom or exclusively online - neither of which have proven to be effective for alternative education populations, Heard said - this program will offer a combination of school and virtual settings.
"It isn't an either or, it's a combination of both," she said.
While there will be no direct instruction involved, each student will be assigned to a certified case manager who will create an individualized program for the student and serve as their coach and mentor throughout the process. That caring, one-on-one relationship with a single educator, Heard said, is often a key to making this type of program successful.
The learning is self-directed - a student could complete a course in two months or 12 months, and there's no limit to how many courses a student can complete in a given time frame. There are no semesters.
"This is an individual plan for every student," Heard said, adding that projects will be based around a student's interests. "It's that hook right there for those students to get engaged and re-engaged with the learning process."
The case managers will work partly from home and work some nontraditional hours, such as being available as virtual support for students who log on to the online system late at night.
Students will check in with their case manager once per week, and various table sessions will be offered where students can get support on certain topics.
Wrap-around support services will also be offered, including representatives from services such as Department of Human Services, food assistance, Medicaid, mental health services and more offered directly in a specified room in the Taft building.
Meier praised Heard's research on the topic and said he believes the approach will be a good fit.
"We believe the plan has a research base, we believe the plan will be competitive and attractive to not only the population that we have served but potentially to a broader population of students and we believe that it works from a basic budget perspective," he said. "It is a plan that is designed to reinvent, if you will, a program that has been in decline."
New school hours will be from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Though the school is expected to see about the same average number of students per day - about 250 to 275 - students will come and go at various hours, with fewer students in the building at any one time.
This may help address some concerns neighbors in the area have expressed about the center, which was the location of an incident in December last year when a student was shot in the leg in what police called a "robbery gone bad."
Ferndale Board of Education trustee Karen Twomey said she believes the lesser concentration of students and the overall program could have a "holistic effect on the climate of the neighborhood in that community."
"This couldn't be more my vision and I couldn't be more delighted," Twomey said.
Heard said the same relationship with a case manager that will help students academically can also effect all areas of a student's life, Heard said.
"There's a level of expectation that is built there and a level of investment that you often don't see in traditional schools," Heard said. "Once you have that adult relationship ... where you can coach them, it is life-transforming for that particular young person."
Ferndale Board of Education vice president W. Charles Moeser said he believes a change was necessary for the current program.
"There's a lot to do. There's a lot at stake," he said. "I've been just so impressed with what I've seen so far in this program."
Board member Nancy Kerr-Mueller said she believes the plan could be successful if implemented well. "I love this idea," she said.
Kerr-Mueller pointed out that she would have liked to see the budget information for the plan prior to the meeting, however. "It seems really strange to try to pass something without having the budget," she said. Twomey agreed she would have liked to see the budget and detailed timeline information prior to the vote.
Superintendent Meier provided budget information at the meeting and said it was not included in the packet only because it is tentative.
Kerr-Mueller expressed concern about the current teachers at Taft and how they would be effected. Ferndale Schools Deputy Superintendent Henry Gold, who oversees adult and alternative education, said current teachers could potentially serve in the case manager positions but pointed out that the qualifications could be different.
"That's something that will have to be assessed," Gold said. He said the union has already seen a presentation about the program and that the district will continue to meet with the union.
Nick Zajas, a teacher with the alternative education program and president of the Ferndale Education Association, expressed concerns about how students would respond to the program and said he knows many students who are happy with the current program. He also had concerns about the number of student cases per case manager, and what seemed to be probable layoffs.
"However it's cut, there's going to be reduction," he said.
Zajas said that the plan is potentially exciting and he is not opposed to it, but said despite many stakeholders involved in the planning process, some current stakeholders such as himself were "never bought in" to the planning.
"We have a lot of open-ended questions that need to be addressed," he said.