When students file into their classrooms at Fostering Leadership Academy (FLA), a tuition-free K-8 school in Redford Charter Township, they’re not necessarily aware that their school building was designed with intention to create excellent outcomes. They just enjoy their child-centered learning environment.
Like all charter public schools, FLA receives no state funding to build or maintain its physical space. Through in-kind donations and philanthropic support from Methodist Children’s Home Society and other charitable organizations, FLA is housed in a state-of-the-art facility that is small by design to meet the educational and social-emotional needs of its students.
Authorized by Grand Valley State University Charter Schools Office, FLA gives kids a different experience from what they’ve had in traditional public school classrooms, says Jessica Fessler, Principal at FLA. That difference starts with small class sizes — no more than 15 to 20 children per class, which is part of the vision of the school board at FLA.
“A lot of times, traditional public schools have so many student needs and classes are so large that an individualized experience is not an option,” Fessler says. “They’re not able to build those personal relationships with students and families, but that’s the foundation of what we are doing here. We recognize that these relationships keep us child-centered and that means we can teach healthy habits and help build character so they become adults we want to live in this world with.”
A commitment to providing a transformative education focused on academic and social-emotional development in a supportive, child-focused environment makes FLA a solid choice for metro Detroit families.
Spaces geared for wellness
The school’s gym is a favorite spot for students, says Fessler. “This is a beautiful space that gives children opportunities for movement during the day. In particular, we also have a space we call our Zen Den, which is a supportive space for students to go when they need a break or a quiet spot,” she says. These resources contribute to students’ growing sense of holistic wellness.
“It’s important for us to help our students learn emotional regulation and recognize when they need a break. We do that by providing social-emotional learning, small group support, and a designated spot with additional support from a school social worker,” Fessler explains. “It’s part of a child-centered, whole-child education. Rigorous academics can be overwhelming at times and we recognize that we all need space to take a break from time to time. It’s not something children inherently know how to do. If we can keep our children from becoming overwhelmed, they’re less likely to cause unintentional harm, so teaching those skills really helps with emotional regulation and maturation.”
Helping students build “habits of excellence” includes learned behaviors, says Kerri Smith, CEO of Champion Education Network, the management organization for FLA, which brings a specific academic and student wellness model to the school.
“We’re teaching coping and self-regulation skills,” Smith explains. “Adults get PTO to help with this, but children don’t and they can’t always express to school staff, parents and guardians when they need a mental health day. This is a safe space to ask for a break and it serves a pretty significant purpose for students with IEPs. The sensory part of the Zen Den helps with those who might need specific sensory stimulation.”
Donor-created art, a library and digital media center with comfortable and functional seating for students as well as interactive smart screens are just some of the spaces that the students will enjoy. Each student will receive a Chromebook, also thanks to donor support.
Accessible and available
At its origins, FLA set out to serve children in the foster care system; now this school community strives to serve the whole-child, regardless of status.
“This is not a one-size-fits-all approach,” Smith says. “As an organization we believe we can teach academic and cognitive skills and behaviors from an asset-based lens. We spend a lot of time training and developing employees in our nonprofit (CEN) on how to support students in a high-quality, high-support educational environment but who may also have had adverse childhood experiences. Relationship building is so important and we train staff through an anti-racist, diversity, equity and inclusion lens.”
Smith emphasizes the importance placed on hiring values-led educators in the school.
“FLA has opened its doors for all K-8 students and we are not a selective application school,” Smith explains. “If families feel our school is a good fit, their child will be accepted into this school. We are a good fit for students in general education, special education, the foster system or families looking for a change.”
With a location accessible from anywhere in metro Detroit, FLA can be a neighborhood school for a wide variety of families. Situated on the border of Detroit, FLA is “minutes away from all of Detroit’s major roadways and only a couple of miles from Livonia, Southfield, Farmington Hills and the Wayne-Westland area,” Smith says.
An investment in yellow school bus transportation within a manageable radius sets FLA apart from other charter schools, Smith says, and it’s a commitment to ensure FLA is more accessible to families who want to attend. “We anticipate there will be students who walk, those who take the bus and those who are dropped off by car,” she says.
In an area where there has been “turmoil and staff changeover in education in majority public school districts in the past three years,” Smith says CEN’s track record as a nonprofit serving the metro Detroit educational community means parents can expect consistency and responsiveness in school leadership and staff.
Parents interested in learning more about FLA can reach out to Principal Fessler. “We love to meet with families to share our message and commitment to giving children an excellent experience for school,” she says.
“We hope to bring joy back to children and we want children to be happy at their school. It’s important to us that parents can find trust that has so often been lost in other school settings. FLA can offer a personal experience in developing foundational relationships with families and students, ensuring all are happy and thriving. That’s very important to me.”