Inside the halls of Bay City Eastern High School, stereotypes and expectations shatter.
Students arrive at the alternative high school believing graduation is out of reach. Visitors brace themselves for a chaotic building covered in graffiti and populated by out-of-control teenagers. Neither expectation matches reality.
Instead, the school’s reality is rising graduation rates. In 2018, 24 students graduated from Eastern. More than 40 are on track to graduate this spring. Another reality is the calm atmosphere inside the one-story building, home to about 150 students. Fresh paint coats the walls and tidy lockers line two quiet hallways.
Before 2018, Eastern High School was named Wenona Alternative School. It was known as the school for kids expelled from other places. But in 2018, the school got a new name and a new mission. The focus today isn’t on troubled students, explains Principal Ryan Boon. Instead, it’s on kids who have failed classes and are in danger of not graduating.
To help those kids graduate, Eastern offers flexible scheduling, small classes, E2020 credit recovery programs, a blend of online and traditional classrooms, in-school computers for every student, and community partnerships. Every other week, the staff meets to talk about each student to determine what is working and to change what isn’t.
Eastern’s mission is handwritten on a whiteboard in Boon’s office. It reads: “We are an alternative high school that will give an exceptional learning opportunity to students who have fallen behind in credits or who need a different smaller setting to help them learn and progress in their education.”
Progressing enough to graduate from high school matters more than you might realize. Communities take a big economic hit when students don’t graduate. In 2015-16, only 79.65% of Michigan students graduated in 4 years, according to Michigan.gov. Increasing the graduation rate in the Detroit area alone from 82% to 90% would generate $59.7 million in earnings and $620,000 in state and local tax revenue, according to the National Alliance for Excellent Education – a Washington, DC-based non-profit.
There are as many reasons why kids drop out of school as there are kids.
“Every kid in this building has a story,” Boon says. “Some of them are heartbreaking. Some are tragic. And some of them are goofy. Everyone here has a story and the hard thing is just trying to rewrite the ending.”
Boon and his team rely on a variety of methods to rewrite those endings.
The teaching staff includes 5 core curriculum teachers. Two additional teachers work in E2020, an online program that helps students recover credits needed to meet graduation requirements. Other online programs allow students to take classes beyond what 5 teachers can lead. Even if a student chooses online classes, teachers are available for individual assistance.
Each student’s program is customized. One student could choose an online class for math, a traditional classroom for English, and E2020 to make up the science class he failed last year. Another student may take all 5 classes online from home while taking care of an infant.
“The kids have a choice,” Boon explains. “ … Do they want to (learn) with a teacher working with them individually? Or do they want to learn fully online and put on the headphones and go?”
The alternative school offers trimesters instead of semesters. That enables kids to take 5 classes each trimester and earn as many as 7.5 credits in a year. At Central and Western, students take 6 classes each semester, earning as many as 6 credits each year.
Other opportunities exist for Eastern students who want bigger challenges. For example, this year one student is dual enrolled at Delta College to take a welding class. About 15 students go to the Career Center to take courses in everything from veterinary medicine to building trades. Eastern students also participate in football, tennis, and track at Bay City Central High School.
Eastern also doesn’t have to be a student’s last stop on their way to a high school diploma. One of this year’s freshmen plans to go back to a traditional high school for her sophomore year. She just needed a year to get her anxiety under control.
“We’re constantly in break-the-cycle mode,” Boon says. Staff members talk to the students about what brought them to Eastern and helps them see a different way of moving ahead. “You’ve got these opportunities and we’re here to help you. What are you going to do? How can we help you?”
The help that’s available includes getting into college. About half the students who will graduate this spring plan to attend Delta College. Delta sent a representative to Eastern to help students enroll. The Bay Area Community Foundation sent staff to help students apply for scholarships.
“A lot of times these kids don’t leave Bay City,” Boon says. “They’ve struggled for one reason or another in life, but they stay here in Bay City, so let’s give them every opportunity to be successful.”
Boon isn’t sure what comes next for Eastern. Much of what was done this academic year was new, so the staff will examine what worked and what didn’t.
“There’s a great sense of reward with these kids who didn’t really think they had a chance at graduating. I always love that side of it.”
Learn more about Eastern High School at their website.