One thing that’s immediately obvious on a visit to the building of the , or CASA, located in Oak Park, is that while it looks like a regular school building from the outside, on the inside, it's really not your typical public high school.
In one large, light-filled room, dancers respond to the counts called out by their teacher in what could be a scene from Fame. In another, students settle into groups of twos and threes to work out complex chemistry problems. And in another classroom, filled with the smell of oil paint, student artists hunch over their sketchpads.
Hallways are quieter, since only about 350 students take classes at CASA. No bells signal the end of one class and the beginning of another; instead, as in a college environment, students and teachers keep an eye on the time and get to class on their own.
CASA offers talented students in six public school districts — Berkley, Ferndale, Oak Park, Madison, Clawson and Lamphere — an opportunity to take the kinds of classes their home districts might not be able to offer.
The program was created in the early 1980s, when districts were facing budget crunches similar to those they face today. That meant some hard choices for individual districts, such as cutting advanced placement (AP) courses that might draw only a few students per semester.
“The first thing to go, usually, are the higher-end classes,” said CASA Director William James. “Fewer students take those, and how can you operate with four students in AP calculus?”
The districts that comprise CASA realized that while they might not be able to offer a full menu of advanced placement courses or higher-level arts classes on their own, they could easily fill them — and even expand what’s available to their students — by pooling their resources.
A steering committee comprising James and superintendents of the six participating districts manages the school and contributes funding. Each district takes turns taking fiduciary responsibility for the school; this year, it’s Berkley.
Students attend class at their regular schools in the morning and at CASA in the afternoon. They are typically recommended for CASA by their high school counselors and begin classes in 10th grade or later.
Some of the program's teachers split their time between CASA and another school in the consortium, while others are retired teachers or part-time college instructors.
Tracy Veresh teaches AP chemistry at CASA and chemistry and honors chemistry courses at . She said she was spurred to teach at CASA after she heard raves about it from her Ferndale students — and by the enthusiasm of a fellow teacher who taught at CASA and had attended it as a student.
“CASA is different from teaching a general population, primarily because CASA is considered a privilege,” Veresh said.
Exposure to a diverse group of motivated students, similar to a college experience, was one of the major factors that motivated Liz Pfleger to send both of her daughters to CASA. Daughter Mariah is now studying marine biology at Florida State University, and daughter Paige currently attends classes at FHS and at CASA.
“It gives them an opportunity to meet people outside of the district, and those students are interested in learning. They’re there because they want to be challenged, too,” she said.
Paige Pfleger said that going to CASA is like a primer for college.
"They give us more responsibility, but it's more relaxed," the 18-year-old FHS senior said. "The students want to be in these classrooms, which isn't always the case in a regular high school."
She said CASA is more like college than it is high school. "It's really completely different than a normal high school ... and I get to make a lot of new friends."