Students at Aim High School study all the typical things middle and high schoolers learn: math, science, English, social studies and more. But, for three of seven class periods during the day at this small, private school in Farmington Hills for sixth- to 12th-grade kids with learning and social differences, students can also dig into electives like video production, sound design, art, drama, cooking, video game programming, robotics, gym, fitness and much more.
Electives at Aim High School are more than just fun, they serve an important purpose for students by helping them build relationships and connections that matter, says Head of School Mike Earls.
“It’s kind of shocking how our elective offerings have grown,” says Earls. “When we started the school 11 years ago, we had very few electives, but we recognized how very important these classes are to our students because they are a great way for them to build relationships and bonds.”
For kids who have struggled in previous educational environments, electives contribute to a sense of belonging that makes all the difference to how they find success at Aim High School.
Finding their tribe through electives
Earls shares the story of a student who joined Aim High in eighth grade but “couldn’t see the value of school, despite his intelligence,” he says. “He felt like he was doing mundane work all day. But he loved graphic design and art, loves to draw and create things.”
When this student started attending the graphic design class with a handful of peers, he found his tribe — a group of kids who shared this interest. “They spend lunchtimes together and hang out on weekends and after school.”
Two years on, this student avoids being absent from school. “This is one story but we have 40 or 50 stories like this,” Earl says. And, inevitably, when a student connects with their educational environment, their academic performance increases.
Electives help some students at Aim High live up to their potential in a particular skill, like music or drama, and they can begin to see themselves occupy space somewhere within their chosen field in the adult world, too.
“One student joined us and struggled for weeks, but mentioned she is a singer, so she brought a song to our band and performed. Over the past few months, academically her life has turned around. She’s doing her work, she has joined the band, and she’s an amazing, incredible vocalist,” Earls says, adding that the band elective started when two students with nothing more than bongos and a kazoo showed interest. Today, the band plays gigs in coffee shops and at events. “Our teachers work very hard to make these relationships work, but for this student, the band is what hooked her. She found success, she found identity, she found her community.”
Fitness, coding, sound engineering, robotics, game programming…
At typical middle schools and high schools, it’s not uncommon for students to find their community through sports, but a hypercompetitive world offers little room for kids who just want to move their bodies. At Aim High School, gym and fitness electives are among the most popular.
“A lot of times, our kids weren’t the last picked to join a side; they were never picked,” Earls says. “Not everyone enjoys competitive sports, but everyone likes to move, even if it’s walking on a treadmill or doing yoga or a weight training program. These electives are perfect for them.”
What makes Aim High’s electives different is that they give students the chance to build skills through longevity. Students can remain in a particular elective for their entire experience at Aim High — and they’re building skills, rather than repeating the same lessons over and over.
“Our teachers make electives interesting and challenging. If a student loves art or music, they won’t have that elective just for a semester, but for four years if they want. They work on that skill set and are pushed and challenged,” Earls says.
Students learning to code, for instance, can build a portfolio of work that can lead them directly to a certification or internship. A partnership with Lawrence Technological University allows students to even earn college credit.
As an independent school, Aim High School has the freedom to hire industry professionals, like teachers from Specs Howard School of Media Arts, who can bring real-world skills to kids. And teachers who lead classes in English and math also have passions and interests they’re willing to share, giving everyone involved something to look forward to during their day, Earls says.
In a school where relationships underpin successful experiences, electives give students and teachers yet another opportunity to connect in meaningful ways.
“Electives are another way to make school relevant for our students,” he says. “This is especially true for kids who don’t feel like they are college bound as eighth or ninth graders. By the time they reach 11th or 12th grade, they can see the value in school.”
Learn more about Aim High School at aimhighschool.com.