SAIL students chart their own course

At a time when many businesses need workers and many students need a flexible approach to instruction, the SAIL Academy in Pigeon offers a model of how a community can work together to bridge those gaps in a way that is a dream come true to some students.

The SAIL —  Student Apprenticeships and Individualized Learning — Academy shares a downtown Pigeon location with Emma's Coffee House. There, the high school learning experience is tailored to fit students’ varying needs — for hands-on job training, academic flexibility and peer interaction.

The year-old program allows students to earn a high school diploma while they take core classes online; participate in local work placements and life skill workshops; take traditional high school electives such as choir or band; or participate in sports. 

Who likes SAIL?

Some students may have fallen behind and need a little boost to catch up. Others may be so far ahead they relish the freedom of a flexible school day. Others blossom with the emotional support a tailored education plan and adult mentorships can offer.

SAIL students must be sophomores to fully enroll, and 16 years old to participate in work placements. In addition, they must interview for admission.  “To enroll for online learning, our students have to show self-motivation and good time management,” says Caitlin Stone-Webber, director of the academy. 

A graduation requirement of 24 credits— four fewer credits than the district’s traditional high school — allows students in need of credit recovery to get back on track, and accommodates those looking for a lighter class load to allow more time for work placements.

Every student is different, and each SAIL student works with adults to fashion an educational roadmap to fit his or her goals and abilities.  This could include:
  • Apprenticeships
  • Non-Career Technical Education work-based learning
  • In-person electives at Lakers High School, such as band, art, mechatronics, etc
  • In-person classes at the local tech center
  • Emotional and mental wellness workshops 
  • Community partnerships
  • Apprenticeships

How does it work?

“​We currently have 15 students enrolled, with three work placements starting second semester,” Stone-Webber says. “Our program has two components, online learning and work placements/apprenticeships. We work closely with our business partners to be sure that the placements are good fits for both the business and our student.”  

Student placements are currently available in manufacturing, healthcare, accounting, and customer service/food industry.  “We are always working on adding more and welcome any industry,” Stone-Webber says.  

If a student has a career interest in mind, staff tries to find something that aligns with those long-term goals, Webber-Stone says. In other cases, students may not know where they are headed after graduation.  “We can work with them and career coaches/assessments,” she says, “to find a route they may be successful in to find the best placement fit for them.”

Work-based versus apprenticeship

The SAIL Academy works on placements as apprentices, along with work-based learning — two different types of programs. 

In an apprenticeship, students earn industry standard wages, industry hours towards a true and portable certification or license, and high school or college credit. These are registered programs through the US Department of Labor, and the Academy staff work with the businesses and Michigan Works to get them established.  

Wanda Bigelow, apprenticeship manager for Genesee Shiawassee Thumb MIchigan Works!, says apprenticeship programs for high school students provide the foundation for students to choose among multiple pathways after high school – enroll in college, enter an apprenticeship program, begin full-time employment, or a combination of the three.
Differences between internships and apprenticeships include:

Length of time: Internships are usually short-term (1-3 months), and apprenticeships are longer-term (1-3 years).

Structure: Apprenticeships include a structured training plan focusing on mastering specific skills an employer needs to fill an occupation within their organization. Internships aren’t structured and often concentrate on entry-level general work experience.

Mentorship: Apprentices receive individualized training with an experienced mentor who walks them through their entire process. Internships do not always include mentorship.

Pay: Apprenticeships are paid experiences that often lead to full-time employment. Internships are often unpaid and may not lead to a full-time job.

Credential: Apprenticeships lead to an industry-recognized credential. Internships typically do not lead to a credential.

College credit: Internship and apprenticeship experiences may both lead to college credit, although some apprenticeship programs will lead to a debt-free college degree.

The SAIL Academy’s work-based learning placement allows for wages and school credit in the form of The Village Schoolhouse.  In this model, students work four to five hours a week, earning a small wage, and learning work skills.  

“This is for our students who may not be ready for an apprenticeship, but are looking to gain employable skills and real life experience,” Webber-Stone says. In this program, each student works with a mentor in the work-place to help guide them.

 What’s the school day look like?

Student schedules are entirely flexible. A building off-campus is open to students every weekday following the district schedule. Two employees — Webber-Stone and a student coordinator — are at that site to help with any problems or questions the students might have.  Students are only required to attend in-person if they are falling behind in coursework.  Otherwise, they can come and go as they like.  

Student work schedules vary, so in some cases when a student is done online, they are done for the day. In other cases, they’ll head right to the job site.  

The program follows eligibility requirements for athletics, so students interested in sports follow a strict pacing schedule and maintain grades required to be able to participate.  In addition, electives at the high school are all available to SAIL Academy students.

Transportation is provided when possible.

Tabitha Scott started the SAIL program last year on the recommendation of her school counselor as a way to help ease the panic attacks and anxiety she had long experienced in regular classroom settings.
“If I felt up to it, I'd sit on the couch with air pods in and get my work done,” Scott recalls, and staff  “always made me feel welcomed and safe in a school environment.”

“Being in SAIL has given me many opportunities such as my part time job at Emma’s (Coffee House),” Scott says. “I feel like going to Sail was one of the best choices I’ve made.”

Scott’s goals are to finish high school, and perhaps to enter beauty school to become  an eyelash tech and aesthetician.

At some point, she’d even like to live in Hawaii for a bit.

“I just find that being able to go to a more open-minded and actively involved school has helped me overcome some of my hardest moments,” she says.
How SAIL started

That’s the outcome Laker Schools Superintendent W. Brian Keim had in mind when he worked with the team to make the Sail Academy a reality.

The program may not be the best fit for every kid, Keim says, but it's the perfect fit for others, “and it's those students we are here to serve.”

“We did not previously have an alternative school in our district and we were seeing students leave for other programs that offered different ways to learn,” Keim says. “We felt we were failing those students by not being able to see them through to graduation.  At the same time, we were hearing from our community business partners that they were in need of young workers that could be trained during high school and retained as employees beyond their school years.”

A grant award allowed a site visit to an innovative school in Ohio that was sending students into youth apprenticeships that led to career opportunities after high school, Keim says. Inspired, he brought the idea back home and found a possible avenue for creation of a program through the U.S. Department of Labor's Registered Youth Apprenticeship programs.  

“The problem was, there was no system for awarding credit for this in Michigan like there was in several other states,” Keim says. “Another problem was that we didn't have the budget to start a new program.”

An unexpected boost— from a pandemic

Enter COVID, where students across the country were forced into remote learning and schools were forced to adapt to a new way of teaching and learning.  

Keim says many students discovered that they could learn remotely and, in some cases, actually preferred it.  Also, government funding began flowing into schools under the Elementary and Secondary School Relief program, which gave schools the financial backing to try some new things.  

 What’s next

 Sail Academy is set to launch its first apprenticeship in the second semester of this year, the first program of its kind in the state. SAIL will be able to place students in true apprenticeship programs, allowing them the opportunity to earn industry hours and competitive wages, while working towards their diplomas.  

The goal, or promise, of each apprenticeship placement is a full-time job offer from the placement company upon completion of the program.  

Learn more

For more information on the SAIL Academy, call 989-453-4765 or email
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