Consortium celebrates 15 years of expanding educational options for Washtenaw County students

The Washtenaw Educational Options Consortium offers several programs designed to support a variety of unique educational needs, including early college classes, online education, and more.
Washtenaw County high schools boast some of the highest graduation rates in Michigan, but the academic programs offered by the Washtenaw Educational Options Consortium (WEOC) chart some of the county's highest rates, often coming in at a perfect 100%.  

Those rates testify to the excellent educational track record of the consortium, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this year. WEOC, which is governed by the superintendents of each of the county's nine school districts and the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD), offers several programs designed to support a variety of unique educational needs. WEOC’s first program, the Early College Alliance (ECA), launched in 2007 to provide opportunities for Washtenaw County students seeking to pursue rigorous and personalized education, as well as cut college costs by earning college credits through Eastern Michigan University while still in high school.

"There was a perceived need that we had to do something differently," says David Dugger, founder and executive director of WEOC. "That’s where you have to empower teachers and students to create this new space. The system gives us the space to do that."

Along with ECA, WEOC also houses the Washtenaw Alliance for Virtual Education (WAVE), a free high school program for students who are unable to attend a traditional high school. WEOC programs also include the Washtenaw International High School (WIHI) and Middle Academy (WIMA), which offers an international baccalaureate (IB) college prep program to students who may not have had access otherwise.

ECA principal Dr. Ellen Fischer and assistant principal Michelle Peet both lovingly refer to ECA as "Washtenaw County’s best kept secret," in that many county residents are unaware of the program despite its success. ECA hosts around 500 students each school year, with a high percentage of them coming from schools in Washtenaw County. 
ECA Principal Dr. Ellen Fischer.
"We have a very narrow focus, and that is to prepare our diverse group of students to empower them to earn bachelor's degrees," Fischer says. "That’s not the mission of any other program. What we have found is that, in traditional schools, kids are not always necessarily prepared for college."

Students in the ECA take around 7,000 credits per year, according to Fischer. In the last two years 88% of ECA students have passed their college classes with a C or better, down from a 90% pass rate pre-pandemic. But Fischer and Peet both view the pandemic not as a detriment to their program, but as a teachable moment for educators and students alike. 

"I think that the pandemic has brought to light to an even greater degree the need for a high school that looks different," says Peet. "Because of our small, focused relationship building, we are very deliberate on how we meet student needs. Large schools simply cannot do that at the level that we do."

Fischer and Peet both emphasize that ECA's mission is to help students from underrepresented groups succeed when they may not have had such an opportunity in the traditional high school environment. 

"We don’t want a school full of kids who are already just on that smooth trajectory toward college," Peet says. "Every student here will have a different pathway through high school. We want to hear from communities and pay attention as professionals to make sure our classrooms and our community is supportive and engaging."

Like ECA, WAVE also stands out from the traditional high school setting by being highly personalized to fit each student’s particular needs. Monique Uzelac, program director at WAVE, says WAVE staff help students deal with various barriers to education by, among other things, "taking time out of the equation."
WAVE Program Director Monique Uzelac.
"We sit down with students [and] we find out when they want to graduate, what their plans are," Uzelac says. "It depends on the situation they’re in – they could have children they take care of, they could be the sole breadwinner in their home, [or] it could be medical or scheduling issues. The program is extremely individualized."

WAVE has seen so much success that Uzelac and other staff are now working on starting a WAVE middle school program. The program is set to open next fall.

"We’re in the process of finding out student and family needs, doing curriculum work, and developing partnerships with local districts," Uzelac says.

WIHI and WIMA, like ECA and WAVE, were also formed to benefit underserved students and families, but with the specific goal of providing IB education. WIMA was founded two years after WIHI in order to help create a pathway for students to receive IB high school diplomas. WIHI principal Nhu Do says she and the rest of the WIHI staff strive to create an environment where students' "authentic selves" can be "seen, valued, and celebrated."

"We have more counselors and social workers and restorative practice workers and grad students for wraparound support, knowing that if we focus on those supports and our high expectations, students will meet those expectations," Do says. "We know they are capable. They have so much brilliance."

Over the past nine years, over 10 WIHI students have received Washtenaw County’s Young Citizen of the Year Award. According to Do, 100% of graduates are accepted to a college or university of their choice, with 40% of them receiving full scholarships.
WIHI Principal Nhu Do.
"They’re being accepted at record numbers to the University of Michigan and other great universities in our state, but also highly selective schools like Harvard," Do explains. 

WIHI also offers a $50,000 college scholarship, provided by an anonymous donor, to two students each year.

"It is a product of people in our community who are seeing the work we’re doing, seeing the results, and wanting to be a part of that celebration of students and removing barriers to access," Do says.

The administrators and educators behind WEOC programs all hope that the consortium's next 15 years make each program better for students and their families. Each program has a strong dedication to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and organizers hope to strengthen their connections with the Washtenaw County community to find areas for improvement. 

"It’s doable because of this idea of thinking differently," Dugger says. "It’s really exciting to be recognized for that, but also to see that you can think outside the box. I feel really excited about leaving that legacy out there."

More information on WEOC and all of its programs is available here.

Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.

All photos by Doug Coombe.