Discouraged by Failures, Students Take New Route to Success

Blended-Learning Centers Partner with Public Schools

Dallas Bell, cofounder of Success Virtual Learning Center, talks with student Toby McDonald

Trinity Clark would like to follow in the footsteps of her great-grandfather, who was an aerospace engineer for the NASA Gemini space program. But she’s sometimes had a hard time launching academically in a conventional high school.

This fall was different. Trinity enrolled in Success Virtual Learning Center, an alternative program newly set up in conjunction with Kenowa Hills Public Schools. Working with an instructor who helps her with online lessons, Trinity has found she is able to navigate through her subjects more easily.

“Last year I kind of slacked off and I didn’t do so good,” said Trinity, a junior at Kenowa Hills High School. “This is better because I can focus on one class at a time rather than six. It keeps me focused. I know what I’ve got to do when I’ve got to do it.”

Wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt, she enjoyed working to the sound of soft piano music in a former RadioShack store on Alpine Avenue NW. This is the site that Success VLC recently renovated as one of its 14 centers in Michigan, to serve students who have dropped out or are at risk of not completing high school. Its combination of flexible online lessons, individual instruction and social support suits the needs of many Kenowa students, officials say.

“We have kids who are disengaged from their education completely,” said Assistant Superintendent Mike Burde. “How do we serve them?”

For Trinity and others, Success VLC is a promising way to do so, he said.

Trinity Clark, right, gets help on a geometry problem from Jacquelyn Gipe, a teacher at Success Virtual Learning Center
Trinity Clark, right, gets help on a geometry problem from Jacquelyn Gipe, a teacher at Success Virtual Learning Center

Advocates for Those without Them

Kenowa Hills joined the Success VLC network this summer as a way to help students who have dropped out, were planning to or are badly behind in graduation credits. The center at 3233 Alpine Ave. NW is one of three in greater Grand Rapids, along with others in Alger Heights and Northeast Grand Rapids.

Nearly 100 students are enrolled at the Alpine center, 41 of them referred by Kenowa Hills and seven by Comstock Park.

Now in its fifth year and operated by Berrien Springs Public Schools, the Success VLC network partners with public schools and homeschooled students. It provides them with laptops to use at home; teachers as well as social workers to support their learning; free summer school and access to college dual enrollment programs; and internships and mentorship opportunities with businesses.

The program is not funded by Kenowa Hills; its costs are covered by per-student state aid and Berrien Springs Public Schools. Its model began there more than 10 years ago when Superintendent Jim Bermingham countered a fiscal crisis with an alternative program to get students back in school.

He later combined his methods with those of Dallas Bell, a former Greenville special-education teacher and reserve police officer who had developed a student-retention system geared to dropouts. Together they devised a system that became Success Virtual Learning Centers.

Bell speaks enthusiastically about Success VLC — which last year served 1,400 students up to age 22 – as a mission to reach struggling young people. He said 65 percent eventually graduate with diplomas that meet Michigan Merit Curriculum standards.

“Most of our kids need the skills to be successful in life,” Bell said. “There are enough advocates for the rest of the students. We need to be the advocates for students who don’t have advocates.”

Quiet, Focused, Better

At the Alpine VLC – a bright and airy space with the feel of a high-tech startup – teachers Jacquelyn Gipe and Ryan Thelen periodically work with a few students quietly working on computers. They are doing individualized lesson plans geared to their skill levels, with a blended-learning model that permits them to come here or work at home as they choose.

Toby McDonald works on her U.S. history class and a unit on the Iraq War. It’s work she finds much easier to do here than in the distracting environment of high school. As a senior at Kenowa Hills last year, she said, a lot of the problem was her anxiety about asking for help, plus taking care of her ailing grandmother at home.

“I wouldn’t turn in entire assignments, because I was always preoccupied,” said Toby, an aspiring illustrator with an artistic wave of bright orange hair.

“This is a lot better,” she said, adding she much prefers the quiet environment and working online. “As much as I like actual classrooms, I always had bad luck with all my classmates getting really rowdy and talking all the time.”

Gipe has helped her improve her grades from barely passing to B territory, without the competition of classmates doing better, she added: “I don’t feel pressurized.”

Thelen, the center’s director and a veteran public-school teacher, said he wants students to feel like they belong, are competent and empowered to change their circumstances. He oversaw 16 graduates last year at the Alger Heights center.

“Some kids come to us at a point where their sense of hope is decimated,” said Thelen, in his third at VLC. “We want them to know we’re there for them and that they can do this.”

CONNECT

Kenowa Hills partnership with Success VLC

Success Virtual Learning Centers

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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