Budget crunch hits alternative high schools

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Capital News Service
LANSING – School districts, including ones in Grand Ledge, Grand Rapids and Ingham County, are closing or restructuring alternative education schools in an effort to balance budgets and meet tougher graduation requirements.
Funding problems, combined with the unstable home lives of many students and the need to meet Michigan Merit Curriculum standards, are all forces working against the success of alternative education programs, according to the Michigan Association of Community and Adult Education in Okemos.
“Many of these students are already dealing with various life challenges,” said association president Julie Menassaka of Grand Blanc. “Now, alternative education advocates are concerned that pressure from cuts in state aid and curriculum requirements are threatening the quality and even the very existence of these alternative programs.”
Savings include staff, administrative and building maintenance costs.
Alternative education curriculum typically helps at-risk high school students whose educational and social needs aren’t met in traditional classrooms, according to the Department of Education.
Alternative programs typically offer smaller class sizes and one-on-one assistance, online programs for students who are lagging academically and counseling to succeed in post-high school education or career training.
“I don’t think John and Jane Doe fully comprehend the train wreck that’s coming when at-risk students won’t be able to graduate because they don’t have alternative programs to help them meet increasing graduation standards,” Menassaka said. “How do you get at-risk students to meet adequate yearly progress?
“That’s why many districts are shutting down their programs, because it hurts their schools’ rating,” she said.
About 4 million students – an estimated 7 percent – attend alternative education programs nationwide. Michigan has more than 369 such programs in 270 districts serving nearly 25,000 students, according to the Michigan Alternative Education Organization in Farmington Hills.
Traditional public schools don’t fit all students, including some with behavior or disciplinary problems or those who fall behind academically, Menassaka said.
“Educators and parents feel lawmakers in Lansing are out of touch with the needs of the alternative education population,” Menassaka said. “As a result, the students are the ones who are on the losing end.”
Grand Ledge Public Schools will close Sawdon High School, its alternative education program, this summer to help balance a potential budget deficit of $4.1 million.
Sawdon typically serves about 80 to 100 students, although enrollment is down to 50 students this year because the school stopped new enrollments.
“We can’t count on the Legislature coming up with additional revenue so we’re planning for the worst,” said Dan Davis, assistant superintendent for human resources for the district.
Davis said the consolidation will allow the district to eliminate seven staff positions.
Sawdon Principal Laura Wyble said some students worry about the transition and are looking at alternatives to attending Grand Ledge High School.
“Some of our students are definitely concerned they will lose the advocacy and connection they receive in this smaller setting,” Wyble said. “Some students just aren’t comfortable in a traditional school setting because they feel they’ll get lost in the numbers and fall through the cracks again.”
Wyble said some older students may earn their general education diploma (GED) through Lansing Community College, while others are looking at alternative education programs in Portland and Fowlerville.
Grandville Public Schools has also made plans to close Orion High School this summer. Orion is the district’s alternative education program that also serves students from Hudsonville and Jenison.
The closing will save the district about $550,000 a year and students from Orion will have the option of transferring to Granville High School.
Meridian High School was closed last year for budgetary reasons. Meridian was an alternative education program operated by Haslett Public Schools and served as many as 125 to 140 students each year.
Grand Rapids began restructuring plans for the district’s seven alternative education schools in fall 2007.
All of those schools have failed to meet federal Adequately Yearly Progress standards for five to seven consecutive years, according to the district.
“Our graduation and academic failure rates speak rather clearly as to why we need dramatic, innovative changes,” said Kurt Johnson, director of alternative education for Grand Rapids Schools. “We have an obligation to the children and families we serve to re-think, restructure and reform our alternative education services.”
In 2009, the graduation rate for the district’s alternative schools was 33 percent, while its traditional high schools graduated 76 percent of their students.
“Under the new model, alternative education is transforming from a stopping point to a transition point that places the focus on supporting student success and persistence to graduation,” Johnson said. “We are also seeking to do away with the negative stigma associated with alternative education.”
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.
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