New 'pathway' to graduation

Justin Biggs

MICHIGAN CITY — Michigan City Area Schools administrators are cooking up significant overhauls to the alternative education program, which they believe will put more struggling students back on the path to success.

Alternative Education Coordinator Justin Biggs introduced the school corporation's new "Pathways to Graduation" initiative to members of the MCAS Board at Tuesday's meeting. The program, which kicks off in August, will combine classroom instruction with online learning, career and technical education, and counseling, aimed at giving alternative education students a clear, incentive-based plan for graduation.

It was developed by a team of MCAS educators, led by Associate Superintendent Wendel McCollum. Based out of the Elston building, it is designed for juniors and seniors who administrators and counselors have identified as being at risk of not graduating, due to frequent disciplinary issues or lack of academic credits, Biggs said. 

"These students ... have undergone some unique experiences, adverse experiences," he said. "In current research, these are called 'traumatic experiences,' where their brains are actually changed from somebody who has not had an adverse childhood experience, and who require a different kind of education."

The school has identified 70 possible students for this fall's inaugural class, with the program having a maximum of 90 slots available — 45 in the morning and 45 in the afternoon.

The new "Pathways" plan is designed to overcome the challenges administrators faced with the prior alternative program, known as SCALE, Biggs said. They included SCALE's success rate — only 16 of 57 enrolled students graduated in 2018, Biggs said.

To rectify these issues, administrators looked toward a successful alternative program used at The Academy, part of Hamilton Southeastern Schools in Fishers, Indiana, Biggs said. Twenty-five of 27 seniors enrolled in the program graduated, due mainly to educators working with pupils to overcome whatever trauma is affecting academic performance, he said.

"They believe that once they have built a relationship and found those obstacles to get them out of the way, the sky's the limit for those kids," he said.

Based on this and other lessons learned from their study of Hamilton Southeastern's program, MCAS officials developed "Pathways to Graduation," which overhauls SCALE in several ways.

The first is the inclusion of two hours' worth of English or math instruction, two subjects students enrolled in SCALE frequently struggled with, Biggs said. 

Before, students exclusively used the online-based Plato Learning Environment, which will still be used for other subjects for an hour each day.

It also requires students to participate in CTE courses at the A.K. Smith Career Center, splitting days between academic and technical education, Biggs said. Finally, students will have regular access to a counselor, who can help them address their socio-emotional needs.

As the name implies, "Pathways" is focused on graduation. To that end, each teen enters the program with a clearly defined plan, including a checklist of courses they need to complete and a post-graduation goal, be it enrolling in technical school or entering the workforce, Biggs said.

To keep students on track, educators will reward them for specific accomplishments, like doing well on tests, earning credits or landing a job.

"What we've seen at Hamilton Southeastern was that students really strive for those seemingly minor accolades," Biggs said. "They loved the stars on their names ... they loved to mark their progress. It will be our goal to do the same."

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