Each year at Covenant School’s graduation ceremony, at least one proud student holds a diploma with one hand and cradles a baby with the other. For many students across Michigan, high school years are spent working to support a family, managing the challenge of homelessness or treating significant health problems.
By design, traditional public schools serve the needs of the typical student. For those who don’t find success in their local district high school, two charter public schools — Covenant Schools and Insight School of Michigan — stand out for their commitment to helping students achieve their educational goals.
Covenant Schools serve and support students
In three locations in Detroit, one location in Grand Rapids and a campus at a Spectrum Juvenile Justice facility in Highland Park, students at Covenant Schools can earn their high school diploma regardless of their previous circumstances, says Mykah Drake, Student Recruitment and Communications Coordinator.
She says students aged 15-22 (or 26 if they have an IEP) find Covenant Schools when they realize the value of a high school diploma after dropping out of their local school due to bullying, incarceration, housing insecurity — even COVID disruption. Many Covenant students are parents or work full time to support their families, or they didn’t find success in a large district public high school.
While not every student is immediately motivated to do the work it takes to finish high school, every student gets the care and attention of the principals, teachers and staff at Covenant Schools, says Superintendent Terrence George.
“That’s our greatest characteristic. We are a caring organization. Those who work here genuinely care,” George says. “We serve kids who have had bad experiences in school, who have not had a lot of structure, who are not trusting of adults. My hope is they stick with us long enough that the teachers and staff connect. That doesn’t happen on day one.”
Covenant Schools are small by design — the largest campus has just 220 students — and each has a full-time counselor and a full-time social worker. “We want our students to have lots of people to go to,” explains George. “A good chunk of our students have not done well in school because of factors having nothing to do with school. They may not have been fed well, or they had to get a job or they didn’t know where they were going to sleep each night. How can a student focus on trigonometry if they are worrying about where they will sleep?”
Alternative schools in Michigan meeting unique needs
Covenant Schools provides a balanced, flexible approach that blends online learning and one class period of live instruction, social experiences, enrichment and real-world instruction.
Students spend the first part of their day in their online academic class — math, English, social studies or science. Teachers are on hand to answer questions and help them meet their goals.
Next, students have teacher-led instruction. In one classroom, there may be students studying biology, chemistry or physical science, and the teacher selects a lesson that relates to all of these areas of study.
“That live instruction will always have a real-world application,” explains George. “It might be about how hydrogen can be used as a fuel source, or how to survive a natural disaster. What are the causes and what are the impacts? The No.1 goal is to form a connection with the students and the No.2 goal is to offer instruction that is relevant to real life.” Math students might dissect the various elements of a pay stub, for instance.
The balance of the day includes guided study, career exploration and enrichment activities.
“Depending on the day, they can go to a mobile paint studio or chess club or play basketball or soccer. We’re hoping to add coding and West African percussion and music production,” says George.
Increasing high school graduation rates
As a charter public school, Covenant Schools has a focused mission to offer a unique level of support that students wouldn’t typically find at other schools. “We devote all of our efforts to doing what we do and serving the students we serve,” says George. “We can try new things because we are small and the biggest advantage is that we can be all about just one mission.”
What Covenant Schools offers is so vital to this student population, “it’s hard to see the future for them without us,” says Drake. “We’ve built a community here and we are a place willing to take in students, help them grow and expose them to different aspects of life and help them find the motivation they need to get their diploma and reach that next goal.”
Insight School of Michigan supports ‘opportunity youth’
Insight School of Michigan is a charter public school designed to meet the needs of “opportunity youth,” or students ages 16-22 with barriers that most schools can’t accommodate, says Kellie Hurley, an Advisor on the Student Support Team.
Hurley’s son is also a student at the online school, so her experience includes being a learning coach to the youngest of her nine kids. Her son opted to enroll at Insight School after he suffered a football injury and then struggled to keep up at his public high school. At the end of the school year, he decided he liked the flexibility and wanted to stay at Insight until he graduated.
This is just one of many unique situations that bring students to become “Knights” at Insight School of Michigan, and the student body spans the entire state, from the UP to Detroit.
“We have students who have to work full time to provide or help their parents. Whatever their reality is, they want a high school diploma,” says Hurley. “Instead of making our students bend to school expectations, we bend our school to better suit them and their timelines so they can still earn their diploma.”
All instructional sessions are recorded, allowing students who cannot attend live to watch in their own time.
“This flexibility is very important for students who struggle with chronic health or mental health issues or who were bullied so badly back in their school they were on the verge of giving up. Some students have social anxiety to the extent that they can’t focus in a brick-and-mortar school. We are an alternative safe place for them to go and get an education,” explains Hurley, adding that she and her colleagues monitor students and hold them accountable day to day and week to week.
Unique support for unique situations
The variety of support available to help students succeed makes Insight School unique. The school prioritizes retaining knowledge over checking off tasks and moving on, so when students struggle, they can meet with their advisors and create individualized success plans. There is a social worker on staff to help find resources for families, no matter where they live across the state.
Students who are working full time, parenting and attending school can attend “Hacks for Busy Knights,” a session filled with time management tips and tricks. Mid-week from 5-9 p.m., students can attend “Knights at Night,” evening sessions that are led by live teachers.
“When a student comes to me and says they struggle because of mental health issues, my first response is that I can work with that,” Hurley says. “And they are surprised that I don’t ask them what their struggles are. I ask them what might suit them best. Most young people think they are in a bubble and the only ones experiencing what they are experiencing. It’s my job to reassure them that they are not the only ones. I offer them the basics and if they are still struggling, they can come back to me. I will help them connect with the person best suited to accommodate their needs.”
Figuring out what works best for each student
If not for Insight School of Michigan, students facing significant barriers to attending their local public schools often drop out entirely, figuring they can always seek a GED if they need one. “The requirements for a GED were updated in 2017 and now it covers math up to (advanced algebra), and that’s not easy,” says Hurley. “They might realize in their early or mid-20s and say what was I thinking? Now, because of Insight, we have a place for students who are still in their prime years and they can finish and get their diploma.”
A selection of the 700 students at Insight School simply enjoy the flexibility online learning allows and some take advantage of dual enrollment with local community colleges.
After students graduate, they continue in existing jobs, they head to college or they become entrepreneurs, just like any other school, says Hurley. She, just like her colleagues, champions each student to achieve their educational goals and move on to the next phase of life.
“We don’t know what’s happening in their homes,” Hurley says. “What we do know is that everyone has the right to a diploma and we want to help them access that.”
Learn more about Covenant Schools, authorized by Grand Valley State University Charter Schools Office at covenantschoolsmi.org.
Read more stories like this at Metro Parent’s Guide to Michigan Charter Schools.