East Detroit approves program to help students graduate

By: Kevin Bunch | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published February 3, 2016

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EASTPOINTE — At its regular meeting Jan. 25, the East Detroit Public Schools Board of Education voted 5-2 to approve an agreement with a company, Graduation Alliance, to help students who have dropped out or who are considered “at risk” to graduate with a high school diploma.

Vice President Charley Jackson and Trustee Julie DeVita cast the two no votes.

According to East Detroit Instructional Services Executive Director Paul Szymanski, he noticed that the district’s graduation rate — including both East Detroit High School and Kellwood Alternative School — during the past three years was 71.2 percent.

“We had 118 students drop out, and another 177 are off track (suspended or expelled) to graduate with the rest of their cohort,” Szymanski said. “I am proposing we partner with this academic institution to locate and re-engage dropouts and in-danger students.”

Those in-danger students include those who have been expelled or are on long-term suspensions. Szymanski said that if a student has been removed from the building, it leaves the district with few alternatives to make sure that student continues getting an education.

“A lot of them get stuck sitting at home,” Szymanski said. “I understand kids make mistakes, and whatever the reason they were expelled for, we can give them an opportunity to gain a diploma even if they’re not on-site.”

He said the students will get the chance to take courses online if necessary, with regular support — at least once a week — from an academic advocate who will come to meet them. The online classes also involve a teacher who will be available to help the students.

Students will be provided with a computer and Internet connection to do the work, Szymanski added. The school district will still be responsible for administering state assessments — typically by telling those students when the district is holding testing in-building and having them come in — and Graduation Alliance’s coursework will have to align with East Detroit’s curriculum and requirements.

“The cost to us is $550 per month per student,” Szymanski said. “It’s a 12-month program.”

The district itself does not actually pay anything from its budget, he said; rather, the students are included in the district’s count for the state, allowing the district to get money through the state’s dropout recovery program legislation. That money then goes to Graduation Alliance to run the program, Szymanski said. The company is paid only for students who the district deems are making substantial progress, Szymanski added.

Rob Belous, vice president of program development for Graduation Alliance, said the next step involves identifying and tracking down the students who have dropped out or are at risk in the East Detroit district and see if they are interested in finishing the work to get their high school diplomas.

The company will be meeting with the district to determine what the coursework and graduation requirements are, as well as what East Detroit wants the company to focus on, Belous said. The company will then meet with the interested students, pass out the laptops, have them meet with the teachers and academic support teams, and begin the program. He said it should take about 30 days from the contract signing to be fully up and running.

“The districts the size of East Detroit will take dropout issues seriously and pull out all the stops to make sure every kid has the opportunity for a brighter future,” Belous said. “It’s really nice to see districts like East Detroit focus on making a difference for every kid.”

The company previously has worked with East Detroit’s superintendent, Ryan McLeod, during his tenure in the Monroe school district, Belous said. The district and the company started talking in the fall, after the district’s annual graduation and dropout rate check.

Szymanski called it a “win-win” for students and the district. Students who have done poorly in traditional school settings can have another chance to get their diplomas, while the district can try to improve graduation rates.

School board Trustee Jon Gruenberg supported the proposal and said it could be good for the district and students.

“I hope it has a positive effect on graduation rates,” Gruenberg said. “And more importantly, for the students who for one reason or another haven’t finished. They now have the ability to do so.”

Jackson questioned if Szymanski had looked to see if any other comparable programs were available that were less expensive, and Szymanski said that he had not.

“I was told at the board meeting that the rate with that company was neither competitively quoted or negotiated; as a result, I couldn’t support it,” Jackson said. “I didn’t have any problems with the underlying idea of the company.”

Jackson added that the rate Graduation Alliance charges could be entirely reasonable, but without any additional negotiations or competing quotes, he does not know that for sure.

Szymanski reiterated that the deal does not cost the district any money and is a better option than doing everything in-house.

“Yes, we can offer a seat-time waiver with the state (for students to take online courses), but we would be responsible for monitoring that seat-time waiver, and we don’t have the resources to do that,” Szymanski said. “(With Graduation Alliance), we still make sure the curriculum is aligned to ours. We approve kids getting into the program, if kids go on probation, and if they get removed because they’re not successful or not doing what they need to do.”

An email was sent to DeVita for comment; she had not responded by press time.