Meeting Specific Community Needs: How GVSU Charter Schools Help Students and Families

For students who need extra care and support because of life circumstances, charter schools can be life changing. Learn how two GVSU charter school networks are helping students succeed, often when no one else will.

Charter schools are tuition-free public schools that are open to all. They’re independently operated and are free to design classrooms to meet community needs and the families they serve.

For instance, a charter school might provide a specialized fine arts or STEM focus, offer culturally responsive learning or follow a Montessori or project-based curriculum. These charter schools can provide valuable choices for families to find the very best educational fit for their child.

In some cases, charter schools provide education that is highly sensitive to very specific community needs — for children who have experienced trauma or for those who need credit recovery support in order to achieve a high school diploma, for example. And this can be life changing.

“What is really unique about some charter schools is that they are designed to meet the needs of specific student populations that need specific resources,,” says Michael Cousins, Manager of Communication for the Grand Valley State University (GVSU) Charter Schools Office. GVSU authorizes 80 charter schools within Michigan, many of which are located in metro Detroit and Grand Rapids. GVSU charter schools serve nearly 34,000 Michigan K-12 students.

Two charter schools authorized by GVSU — Fostering Leadership Academy and Covenant House Academy Detroit — provide unique education options to some of the students in the community with the highest needs. “These are schools that support students who may not have anywhere else to go to get the help and care they need to be successful. These charter public schools are not letting those kids go unserved,” says Cousins.

We take a look at these two charter public schools that work hard to provide specialized education to kids and families most in need.

Fostering Leadership Academy

Situated on the 60-acre campus of Methodist Children’s Home Society (MCHS), in the inner-ring Detroit suburb of Redford is Fostering Leadership Academy (FLA). The school currently serves students in fourth through eighth grades, and will soon expand to a K-8 school that provides transportation to better serve more students.

FLA is more than a school; it’s a trauma-informed education center that provides education and support for children who have experienced abuse and neglect, parental loss, homelessness and poverty.

Prior to becoming a GVSU-authorized charter school, FLA educated boys in the foster care system living at MCHS. They’d otherwise attend the Redford Union School District. But leaders knew these students would perform best through a trauma-informed model that seeks to understand what they’ve been through, rather than what’s wrong with them.

“It’s no knock against traditional public schools, but our children require more and that is why we decided to offer trauma-informed care and treatment. We can’t depend on another school,” says Carolyn Watson, Director of Marketing and Development with MCHS.

“There is no other school like this in the state,” says Jessica Fessler, Principal at FLA. “We are the only school invested in this type of educational environment for the kids.”

Through small class sizes, additional paraprofessional staff, frequent breaks, a focus on social-emotional learning and restorative practices, students at FLA learn to share their thoughts and feelings and build relationships with adults and other students who really care.

Fessler says she appreciates how FLA, as a charter school, holds students to the same rigorous standards as traditional public schools but can provide students what they need to succeed.

Support and commitment go beyond the classroom walls, adds Fessler, as teachers and administrators provide wraparound services to support families and their children — many of whom have not had positive experiences with schools. FLA wants to change that.

“Kids are kids no matter what they have been through,” says Fessler. “If we can have a primary focus on growing these kids academically, emotionally and socially, any child would thrive in this environment.”

Covenant House Academy Detroit

At three Covenant House Academy campuses in Detroit (and another Covenant House Academy school in Grand Rapids), more than 900 students ages 15 to 22 who, for many individual reasons, have struggled to succeed in high school, can recover credits and learn life skills in a safe, structured and supportive environment.

“Some of our students are wards of the court, some are homeless, others are parents themselves,” explains Dollie Hansard, Student Interventionist at Covenant House Academy Detroit Southwest. “Some have full-time jobs and have to pay household expenses and school is on the backburner.”

At this stage in the pandemic, Covenant House Academy is also serving many ninth and 10th grade students who didn’t do well in their home school remote learning environments, says Kenneth Pickles, Principal at Covenant House Academy Detroit Central. “They may have earned a half credit or one credit all last year,” he says. “We offer them an option to accelerate because they can work at their own pace. The average time is seven weeks to finish class, and if they are motivated, they can finish more quickly.”

Covenant House Academy Detroit provides students with the technology they need to do schoolwork from home and even helps set up internet connections and provide food resources. If needed, the school connects them to shelters and permanent housing. Through an online curriculum, students can work at their own pace to recover credits and earn their diplomas. When they need to, students can also come into the brick and mortar schools to work with teachers.

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Photo credit: Covenant House Academy/GVSU Charter Schools Office

“To be successful, our students need an environment where they are supported. For our students, that support has not previously been there,” says Pickles, adding that the small, 200-student enrollment at his campus means teachers and students can build strong relationships.

With full-time social workers, interventionists, homeless liaisons and partnerships with outside organizations, each Covenant House Academy Detroit campus provides whatever students need to get a diploma. “We care and we make sure they have the support to be successful and then transition to their next step,” Pickles says.

“Because we are a charter school, we can offer so much more,” Hansard explains. “It feels good giving back to the kids. For some, we provide the only meal they get. At every school, we work as a team to make sure their needs are met.”

And, most of the academy’s students are success stories, says Hansard. “One of our students lost her mother and her father was deported. She was not able to get her transcripts from her original school and had to start over in the ninth grade,” she says. “Then, when her transcripts came through she was so excited because she was able to advance to the end of 11th grade. This was October and she had a goal to graduate in December. She worked hard every day, graduated according to her goal, and now she’s in college studying to be a dental hygienist.”

Content sponsored by Grand Valley State University Charter Schools Office. Learn more about the power of GVSU’s charter schools at gvsu.edu/cso.

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