Growing grades, plants, and tending to goats at Blended Learning Academies

Dr. Timothy (Tim) Brannan and his wife adopted their sons Josh and Thomas at different times, but when they were both 14 years old. After counseling and teaching the two, who grew up in Detroit and Flint, Brannan realized just how much children from more challenging backgrounds needed strong schools with equally good support systems. 

“Lansing schools have a higher than average rate of “off-track” graduation,” explains Brannan, noting that this not just an issue that larger cities face. 

So, Brannan decided to provide both a school and a support system for students who need it most. In September of 2014, Brannan and his team opened Blended Learning Academies, a tuition-free school that blends educational technology and small-group teaching sessions, as well as one-on-one teacher-student interactions. 

“There is a large number of dropouts and stop-outs we are trying to fill the need for,” says Brannan.   

Creating opportunities for growth, retention, and success

““We believe each student in the Lansing area should have the opportunity to earn a high school diploma. We are a public school academy, so there is no cost to attend,” he explains. 

Blended Learning Academies, located at 1754 E. Clark Road Lansing, MI 48906, offers small class sizes with certified teachers in the core content areas of Math, English/Language Arts, Science, and Social Studies. Blended Learning also offers elective classes such as Spanish, Physical Education, Health, and Art. The small class sizes are what Brannan believes to be the best setting to serve their demographic of students. 

But Blended Learning Academies isn’t just a small, public school. Aside from offering these individualized classes, this academy, which serves grades 9 through 12, integrates real-time teaching with learning technology, and creates individualized learning plans for each student. 

“Each student has a brand new Google Chromebook to use during the day in classes. We also use interactive whiteboards and iPads in various classes as well,” says Brannan.  ”When each student enrolls, we review their academic history and create an individualized learning plan that leads them to graduation.”

Learning beyond the classroom 

The school also focuses on social skills that are necessary for the student to survive in both future workplaces and the community. 

Part of the social skills focus is the Blended Learning Academies community garden, where students and faculty grow herbs and vegetables, as well as take care of a dozen goats. The school is currently working on installing an aqua garden as well, which Brannan describes as “a tower garden that uses water to grow plants versus soil.” He explains it will be able to grow 28 different plants. 

“We wanted to demonstrate to the students that their food comes from more places than McDonald’s or Meijer,” adds Brannan. “In the summer, we show the kids how to make goat cheese and goat soap.” 
    
Blended Learning Academies’ typical school day lasts from 8a.m. to 1p.m., and their school year runs year-round, offering a fall, spring, and summer semester. This allows Blended Learning Academies to provide support on more than just an educational level, all year long.

“We have some kids stay after for more one-on-one work,” says Brannan. “In addition, we find [that some of] our kids need to work, so they have the afternoon to get a job.” 

Donovan Black, a graduate of Blended Learning Academies, attended from 2015 to 2017 for 10th and 11th grade – graduating early due to his hard work. He believes the support he received from the school far surpassed support other schools offer. 

“The teachers never rushed you, you learn at your own pace until you get it,” says Black. “If I came in before school they were there to help. If I stayed after, they never acted like, ‘I have places to be,’ they stayed and helped you one-on-one.” 

Black explains how he was even able to take his computer home with him to work on things if he needed. But the support didn’t stop with academics. 

“One of my favorite people there is Kate. I’m not sure what her title is there or anything but she was sort of like a counselor to me – if I got mad during class, I would go in and talk with her and she would calm me down every time,” he says. 

“I was having trouble seeing for a while and I needed glasses, but I didn’t and still don’t live with my parents and I didn’t know how to get glasses so one day she took me to get me some glasses and some other things I needed to get done. She’s just a really good person.”

Good growing pains

Since Blended Learning Academies opened their doors in 2014, their numbers have increased every year, jumping from 52 students in 2014 to 86 enrolled students in 2016. “We hope to hit 100 this fall,” says Brannan.   

Although Blended Learning Academies is increasing its numbers each year being a smaller non-tuition-based school, focusing on serving at-risk students does come with its challenges. One of the biggest challenges, according to Brannan, is getting the children to and from school. 

“Since we are small, we can’t offer transportation,” he says. 

But regardless of the challenges, Brannan and the team at Blended Learning Academies pushes on to help more students like Donovan Black, who enjoyed learning and did thrive in the school’s innovative classrooms.

“I don’t know anyone who went there who didn’t like it there,” says Black. “I still go up there when I get the chance.”

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

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Megan Westers is a freelance writer for Capital Gains. 

Photos © Dave Trumpie

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.

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