Changes Produce More Graduates at Alternative High School

Alexis Woroniecki tried two traditional high schools before dropping out her sophomore year. But in late May she spoke at her school’s graduation ceremony.

She credits her teachers at East Lee Campus for sending her down a new path. “The teachers are what make you go back,” Alexis said.

New ways of running an alternative education school have been met with huge success in increasing the graduation rates of students like her at East Lee.

Before the makeover at the Godfrey-Lee high school was started five years ago, 70 percent of the students were failing to graduate, Principal Jim Jensen said. In the first year of changes, that number was reduced to 28 percent.

Part of the restructuring involved shifting the school’s focus to academics and developing the work skills of students who haven’t done well in traditional high schools. Getting students in college had been the emphasis, but only three out of 100 were achieving that goal, Jensen said.

“We need to get these kids jobs,” said Jensen, who spent two years as assistant principal at the school before becoming the top administrator. He also directs the district’s community education program.

What They’ve Done So Far

Even the school’s name — it used to be called Vision Quest — was changed as part of the East Lee Campus transformation. “We gutted the whole program,” Jensen said.

The overhaul included:

• A big push to get students to attend school. If a student doesn’t show up at school, a mentor will take school work to the student’s home. “It’s whatever we have to do,” Jensen said. “If we can’t get students to the building, we’ll get the work to the student.” The attendance rate was 74 percent this year and next year’s goal is 80 percent. Five years ago, it was around 35 percent, Jensen said.
• Reducing the number of credits needed to graduate from 25 to 16, the minimum state requirement. Lee High School students are required to have 30. Lowering the number, with school board approval, was accomplished by eliminating requirements for elective classes.
• Devoting a new 30-minute seminar period at the end of the school day to helping students in any subject.
• Capping enrollment at 100 students. It had been as high as 200, with many students coming from outside the district. The school no longer accepts out-of-district students because “it goes against your graduation rate figure,” Jensen said. “They’re not acclimated to our system.”
• Instituting a zero tolerance policy for fighting inside the school. When it was Vision Quest, the school had a reputation for fighting, especially after a teacher was hospitalized trying to break up a fight in 2010. Jensen said no fights took place in the building this year, although they still happen outside where the school has no control over them.

Jensen said the school pushes soft skills like coming to school on time, communicating clearly and being a good neighbor, along with learning to read. Nearly 60 percent of students entering the school read below their grade levels. Some as old as 17 only read at the second-grade level.

Next year, the school plans to work more with Grand Rapids Community College to get students into certification programs for manufacturing, health, computer science and automotive careers.

“We really feel we have developed an academic focus alternative high school,” said David Britten, Godfrey-Lee superintendent. “The focus is on getting students their diploma and job skills at the same time.”

Moving StoriesPrincipal Jim Jensen, teachers and administrators worked together to turn the East Lee Campus alternative education school around

For the past couple of years, East Lee Campus students have participated in graduation ceremonies with the regular Lee High School students. East Lee student Alexis Woroniecki spoke at this year’s ceremony.

Alexis, 17, started high school at Byron Center, but found it hard to make friends there. She switched to East Kentwood her sophomore year but stopped going to class. For the next year and a half, she stayed at home watching her younger brother and sisters. “It was not a good thing,” Alexis said. “It felt like my life was ending.”

Her mom worked third shift to provide for her and her siblings, and there was little support from her father. “My mom, she worked so hard trying to take care of us,” said Alexis, who “was almost a full-time nanny” but stayed out of any trouble.

“There was no way we were going to be able to get a babysitter,” she said of the family’s money situation. “I’m kind of glad I stayed home. Someone needed to take care of them.”

When she heard about East Lee Campus, it intrigued her. “It felt like the perfect place for me,” she said. “It was a smaller school, and I linked with the people more.”

Today, it’s hard to believe the smiling, vivacious Alexis ever could have felt her life was going nowhere. Ask her what she wants to do and she replies, excitedly, “Oh, there are so many things I’d love to do.” Two of them are art and photojournalism, and she plans to attend Kendall College of Art and Design with the help of scholarship money.

Working with Families

With Hispanics making up the majority of the school population at East Lee, Jensen realized building relationships with them would be key to improving the school. Hispanics generally have a strong family structure and view education differently, he said. For instance, many parents take their children out of school for a month or more to visit their families out of state.

“We feel if we can bring the family in, we have a better chance to bring kids in,” Jensen said. “This is a very poor area. A lot of these students are the first to graduate from high school in their family. We’re dealing with an at-risk group with very minimal parent support.”

Jensen credits the teachers for building relationships with the children. The school’s credibility has gone up with all the work that staff has done to put the changes in place, he said.

Next year will be the fifth year of the plan and more changes are coming. Staff will be pushing harder to improve attendance, work more with GRCC on getting students certifications and try to get day care for teenagers with children.

Jensen eventually wants to start a program that reaches at-risk students in middle school and elementary school, and is writing his college dissertation on it.

“To allow a student to fail is just morally wrong,” he said. “You have an obligation. If we don’t succeed in schooling students, they’re going to end up costing us.”

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Linda Odette
Linda Odette is a freelance writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience in journalism. She’s worked primarily as an editor in feature departments at newspapers in West Michigan, including the Grand Rapids Press, the Muskegon Chronicle and the Holland Sentinel. She lives in East Grand Rapids near the Eastown edge, has a teenage son and a daughter in college. Read Linda's full bio

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