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Published in Print: April 28, 2010, as Detroit-Area District Innovates to Address Dropout Problem

District Innovates to Address Dropout Problem

Cyber high school is having success re-engaging dropouts and at-risk students, earning state funds tied to enrollment.

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By any measure, the Detroit area’s high-school-dropout problem is a crisis.

The Motor City area has one of the highest dropout rates in the country, which experts say contributes to the city’s economic stagnation and high crime rate, and strains state and local aid programs.

The dropout rate has a heavy financial impact on the more than 30 school districts in the Detroit metropolitan area, many of which have high percentages of low-income and minority students. As students drop out and others move to suburban districts, local education budgets are slashed even further because state funding is directly tied to student enrollment.

But Westwood Cyber High School, a new online program sponsored by the 2,500-student Westwood Community School District near Detroit aimed at helping struggling students earn their diplomas in virtual classes, is having success re-engaging area dropouts and at-risk students. It is luring students from the Detroit area, and the state money tied to them, into the Westwood district.

“This problem is very, very serious,” said Sharif M. Shakrani, the co-director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “When the economy was clicking on all burners a few years ago, we didn’t worry about it as much, because a lot of these students could get jobs. Now that is not the case.”

To help combat the dropout problem, Michigan state officials have held dropout-prevention summits, instituted a “dropout challenge” for schools, and pumped millions into school improvements, including support for online courses. With a dropout rate that Mr. Shakrani estimates at 40 percent or higher for the school districts in metropolitan Detroit, many education officials are now watching the Westwood cyber high school program closely to see if its model proves successful.

Enrollment Triples

Students at the cyber high school are often passionate about the projects they choose to work on, eager to collaborate with their peers on schoolwork, and highly self-motivated. But they are also students who in traditional schools were at risk of dropping out.

The cyber high school program uses a blend of online classes, project-based learning, and optional face-to-face support to coax once-reluctant learners to find their inner academic.

“This program addresses the dropout crisis and is a total change of a model of instruction,” said Bruce Umpstead, the director of Michigan’s office of educational technology. “It hits the sweet spot.”

Jeffrey Fleis, 16, also of
Dearborn Heights,
works on an online class
in a building in Inkster,
Mich., used by Westwood
Cyber High.
Jeffrey Fleis, 16, also of Dearborn Heights, works on an online class in a building in Inkster, Mich., used by Westwood Cyber High.
—Patricia Beck/Detroit Free Press

Mr. Umpstead got the idea for the program from a United Kingdom organization that created a similar program for dropouts there, and the Westwood school district agreed to launch the cyber high school program. The predominantly low-income, minority district was losing students and wanted to increase enrollment and address the dropout crisis, Mr. Umpstead said.

Westwood Cyber High was launched in February of last year with 180 students and quickly racked up a substantial waiting list. This year, 540 students are enrolled, many from surrounding districts in Michigan, a state with a strong public-school-choice program allowing students to enroll at schools outside their home districts.

All the students at the cyber high school are deemed at risk of dropping out, said Glen Taylor, the executive director of innovation and state and federal programs in the district and also the director of the cyber high school. The average age of the students is 16½, and they typically arrive on the school’s electronic doorstep five credits behind their peers in the educational process.

Many of the students are bright, Mr. Taylor said, but were not engaged by a traditional classroom setup.

Each student—called a “researcher” at Westwood Cyber High—is provided with a 20-inch Apple iMac desktop computer. The school also pays for home broadband connections, Mr. Taylor said.

“It was the only way to ensure access to school,” he said. “If mom or dad doesn’t pay the bill, then students don’t have access to school, which is not acceptable.”

The school, which operates year round, requires students to log on seven days a week, even if it is just for a few minutes a day. Teachers, called both “experts” and “mentors,” are available to help students 24 hours a day, and sometimes late-evening hours can be the busiest, Mr. Taylor said.

Students generally work from home, but most are expected to come in to a central school building twice a week for at least an hour to work face to face with teachers and use some of the higher-level video and audio equipment available.

Each mentor is assigned six students to shepherd through the education process. The mentors work closely with their students, often one-to-one, make home visits, and oversee how their time is spent at the school. They often work part-time for the cyber high school and may have jobs as face-to-face teachers in nearby districts, Mr. Taylor said.

“Experts,” who typically work full time for the school, are teachers highly qualified in a specific content area and closely involved in instruction and assessment of students in their particular subjects.

Meeting State Standards

Westwood Cyber High’s educational goals aren’t centered around a traditional high school curriculum. In fact, there aren’t any classes, as such, Mr. Taylor said. The entire program is aimed at fulfilling state graduation requirements.

“The only way to earn credits is to create learning artifacts that match up to the state standards,” Mr. Taylor said.

All the students have real-time access to their transcripts so they can see which of the 96 state standards they have met and which are still outstanding. But the way the cyber high school students meet those standards is not through taking Algebra 1 courses, for example, or American history, or by sitting in front of their computers for a certain number of hours.

In fact, the school received a seat-time waiver from the state to take a different approach and operate based on performance, Mr. Umpstead said.

The cyber high school focuses on project-based learning. Students often choose their own projects to fulfill various aspects of high school graduation requirements. For instance, 16-year-old Ashley Jackson felt writing was her strongest area, so she created a magazine and articles on human trafficking, a subject that interested her. Through that project, she was able to satisfy English standards, writing and research standards, and some general social studies standards, said Anna J. Henning, a mentor and English expert at the school.

“We let them be really creative and explore their interests,” Ms. Henning said, “but in some areas they may need more structured, prefabricated projects created by the experts.”

One student satisfied some foreign-language requirements by reading and reporting on The Stranger by Albert Camus. Another achieved chemistry and visual arts credits for a research project on the process of dyeing hair, Ms. Henning said. Another student has already written 10 chapters of a novel about zombies.

Before enrolling at the cyber high school more than a year ago, Ms. Jackson was on the verge of dropping out. She said she had an undiagnosed learning disability and was behind in her classes.

“It was a horrible feeling, sort of embarrassing, and I didn’t want to go to school,” she said. “It seemed like everybody was ahead of me, and I was the one in the back of the room who didn’t know anything.”

At Westwood Cyber High, Ms. Jackson discovered a love of learning, and she said teacher support was critical.

“The teachers know me better, and it’s a lot more interactive,” she said. “I can log on to school and talk to a teacher one-on-one, which is really important to me. I feel like I have their undivided attention.”

On a typical day, she logs on to do schoolwork from about 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. She said she’s now on track to graduate on time.

Ms. Jackson said she had concerns at first about her social life at the cyber high school. But she found that the school offers many group projects, and that students often meet on their computer-lab days in a small building used by the district.

Though the cyber high school was launched with a grant of $300,000 from the state through the federal Enhancing Education Through Technology program, Mr. Taylor said the school appears to be sustainable by using the per-pupil payment every public school receives.

The Westwood district, which had been struggling to retain students, is now growing; it has increased enrollment by 33 percent since the cyber high school was launched.

“If you can find a district that’s interested in these types of students, it’s a wonderful program for them,” said Mr. Umpstead from the state office of educational technology. “It enables them to care about students dropping out of our system, but it also creates an economic incentive for them to care.”

Vol. 29, Issue 30, Pages S6,S7

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