This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Vine Neighborhood series.
When Alexis Kemp was 19 and pregnant with her first child, she came across a message in an online bulletin board announcing the opening of Kalamazoo Covenant Academy, (KCA), a charter school for young adults ages 16 to 22.
As a young teen, Kemp had dropped out of school and had some issues with the law. She wanted to get her life back on track. She had a lifelong dream of becoming a pastor.
What she found at KCA, which opened in 2017 chartered by Grand Valley State University, was more than an academic opportunity. Kemp says she discovered a community that advocates for her both inside and outside of school, and also helps provide her young family with necessities, like food, clothing, and diapers.
“I love the school. I love the people here. I love the affection,” says Kemp, who in her third year plans to graduate next June. “It’s like having a mom or dad at your school. They don’t down us and stuff. They do not give up on me. They are my advocates. This school is not just for education, it helps you mature in life, teaches you what you need to do as an adult, helps you with your goals and stuff.”
Kalamazoo Covenant Academy student Alexis Kemp and Lluvi Diaz-Lanier, Assistant Operations Director, both agree that Covenant helps youth revive their dreams.
Covenant, with Michigan academies in Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Muskegon, moved into the former PNC building at 400 Crosstown Parkway in 2017. Since then, the blended academic year-round school, which includes both online and classroom learning, has drawn youth who have dropped out of school for a variety of issues, including homelessness, substance abuse, incarceration, mental health, and pregnancy. Typically, these youth have a lack of family support, says Covenant Academy founder and director Sam Joseph.
“We are like a family,” says Joseph, crediting teachers and staff who are dedicated to students. “I tell my staff, I hire you primarily as parents who can teach because the kids don’t have the family support. Our mission is to prevent youth homelessness and youth incarceration. If we don’t do this in school, many of the kids will end up in jail or the welfare system.”
Joseph says the school achieves its mission through respect, love, and retention. Students are required to attend at least one four-hour session a day. The sessions run from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., with meals provided. “Retention is the number one goal, not graduation because graduation will come,” says Joseph.
“If (students) come to school with love, they will learn. If they learn, they will graduate, they will love the environment, and break the barriers (to being successful) as much as possible.”
For many students, like Kemp, KCA staff has literally become family. When Kemp had her last two babies, teachers visited her at the hospital to provide maternal support. Jennifer Carpenter, KCA Enrollment and Data Specialist, is the godmother of Kemp’s youngest child.
“People go through a lot outside of here,” says Kemp. “This school is the only school I can say has had my back from Day One.”
With over 200 students enrolled and over 60 who have graduated, Covenant is filling an important niche in the educational offerings in Kalamazoo. KCA, with its 14 to 1 student to staff ratio and wraparound support, is a place where youth say they feel seen and supported.
“This is a place that revives dreams,” says Lluvi Diaz-Lanier, KCA Assistant Operations Director. “Our students once had dreams and goals and the world somehow pounded it out of them. Here they get to dream again.”
Across the state: How Covenant Academies began
Fifteen years ago, the Detroit Public Schools superintendent approached Joseph, a mental health professional and passionate advocate of youth, and asked him to consider opening an academy for high school dropouts in the city. According to Michigan School Data, most major Michigan cities, including Kalamazoo, have dropout rates of 25 to 27 percent; 80 percent are African American.
KCA models its curriculum on respect, love and retention to support youth in earning their high school diplomas.
“Almost all of the students dropped out not because their education was difficult, but because their personal life was difficult, and education became the victim,” says Joseph.
Once launched, the Detroit Covenant Life Skills Center enrolled over 900 students, mostly homeless, and was so successful that Joseph was approached seven years ago by the superintendent of Grand Rapids to start an academy there, and then five years ago, to start one in Muskegon, where the school also has a residential facility.
When Covenant began looking for its Kalamazoo home, Joseph says, there was some resistance in the community, especially from the public schools who were not familiar with the model. But since KCA has opened, he has found Kalamazoo to be welcoming.
KCA receives support from local foundations, such as the Kalamazoo Community Foundation and the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation. It has individual donors and has plenty of advocates, including Marc Schupan, CEO of Schupan & Sons, Inc., and Kalamazoo City Manager Jim Ritsema.
“(Joseph) is a pretty amazing guy. He’s like Mother Theresa,” says Schupan, who has become a huge supporter of Covenant since he was first approached by Joseph through a friend four years ago. Since then, Schupan has sought support for the school through associates and agencies and “other good people.”
“When I see one of our graduations, there isn’t anything that makes me feel better for months,” says Schupan, himself a former teacher. “You’d think they’d won the Heisman Trophy. It’s really a loving atmosphere.”
“Every kid has a talent. A lot of times they don’t even know what that talent is unless they are put in an environment where they can grow that talent and begin to believe in themselves,” says Schupan. “Unfortunately what’s going to happen without something like this is not good for them and not good for the community. We all win on this.”
Learning to parent by modeling
In addition to its academic goals, which include all graduates reading at a ninth-grade reading level, Covenant takes the concept of parenting seriously. While helping young parents to make progress towards their dreams, Covenant staff also provides a supportive community where positive parenting is modeled and encouraged.
One surprise in Kalamazoo, says Joseph, was the high number of young mothers who have enrolled. In the first year, over 94 young mothers came to KCA, says Joseph. In contrast, he says, Muskegon had 90 young mothers enrolled in three years.
At Covenant, mothers are allowed to bring their children to school. The babies accompany them in class, and the older children have a toddler room.
Students have access to free clothing for themselves and their children at the KCA free store.
“The kids love coming here when I have to bring them to school,” says Kemp, who now has a three-, two- and one-year-old. “This school is about how to be a parent, to teach you to be a good parent by teachers being good parents to their students.
“That trickles down to how I handle my own children. When some of us bring kids, when they see us doing something, they say, ‘Oh no, you are not doing that in here.’ I learned how to control myself a lot more being here because the people around here make me want me to be kind.”
Because many of the students have been estranged from their families of origin, Joseph says he hopes KCA can help break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and neglect. Enrollment and Data Specialist Carpenter is wholehearted about that goal.
“My number one mission is to show students love and respect. We have to start at square one with these students when they come in. Most of them have never really known unconditional love. They’ve never known what it was like to be respected by an adult. I always call the men, ‘Sir,’ until we get to a point where I can say, ‘Hey, buddy.’ “We thrive when they start standing up taller because they know we respect them.”
To extend its support of young parents and children, Joseph says KCA plans to open a daycare and early childhood education facility next year on its current property off of South Westnedge. While giving priority to Covenant students, the center will also be open to the public.
The meaning of covenant
Joseph says he chose the name covenant to model the sacred covenants in our lives, like those of marriage and parenting. If youth have not been properly parented, that parenting covenant has been broken, he says.
“If the actual parents could not do it, we have to maintain that covenant,” says Joseph. “When a kid comes on board, there is a sheet with rules. It’s a covenant, not a contract.”
Sam Joseph, founder and chairman of Kalamazoo Covenant Academy, says KCA's mission is to prevent youth homelessness and incarceration through retention, unconditional love, and respect.
For those and other reasons, staff often hears that youth outside of school make better decisions because they know that their teachers would be disappointed if they get in trouble.
Carpenter says she has students who come up to her and say, “'I got so mad last night I was going to pummel this kid, but then I remembered how disappointed you would be.'
“For our students, I would hope incarceration would be avoided. They know how much we love them and we know how much it would hurt us if we lost them to a prison sentence.”
Unfortunately, one student was recently sentenced to seven years in prison. “It broke our hearts,” says Carpenter. “He got mixed up in the wrong situation.” Staff and students send him postcards to let him know he’s not forgotten.
“I’m proud there is a school like this, but it’s not easy,” says Joseph. “It’s a spiritual mission.”
Most of Covenant’s graduates, thanks to KZCF and other donors, have been given scholarships and are attending colleges or trade schools, says Joseph. Willie Hurse, 18, who plans to graduate in June, has already been accepted to a trade school in Plainwell where he will live in a dorm.
“If I never came to this school, I wouldn’t know what I could do,” says Hurse. “People here will make my day and say, ‘You got this.’ There’s a great staff here to talk about how you feel. These are the type of people who can make me happy.”
Kemp definitely agrees. “When I tell people about this school, I’m so proud to say I am a student here,” says Kemp.
Kemp, with three young children, a currently broken leg that confines her to a scooter, and the need to maintain her probation requirements, has her fair share of obstacles to overcome to get to a four-hour session a day required by the year-round academy. “But still, I get up and go,” she says.
“When you have the right guidance, the right support, the right people, the positive vibes around you, you are going to do what you need to do.
“Some of us are lost, no guidance, and we come here, and we’re full of life,” says Kemp. “I was lost with no guidance. I came here and I felt love, I felt guidance, and I felt happy and I felt safe.”
To learn more about KCA, check here
Photos by Taylor Scamehorn, unless otherwise indicated. See more of her work here.