‘Tiny but mighty:’ Alternative high school community changing lives and charting futures

Photo by Sue Suchyta
Advantage Academy Alternative High School director Judy Cock surveys a science lab ready for fall classes.

Sunday Times Newspapers

SOUTHGATE – Described as “tiny but mighty,” the staff and volunteers at Advantage Academy, an alternative public high school, are helping students plan their lives one diploma at a time.

Director Judy Cock, who oversees multiple programs at the Asher School building, 14101 Leroy, said the alternative public high school and high school completion program serve students from more than 22 local school districts.

She said the school, which is not a charter school, works with students who have not been successful in other districts or traditional classrooms.

“Our goal for our alternative student, our younger student, is to get them in, get them successful and move them on toward their high school completion to their next step,” Cock said.

Teacher Dawn Izzi said that because students come to the school lacking social and academic confidence, the teachers try to create an environment that is both academically challenging and socially accepting of students’ diverse needs. She said her own experiences help her understand what her students are facing.

“Their experiences mirror much of the adversity that I faced as a teenager and young adult,” Izzi said. “What sets us above the rest is that we care about the students beyond the classroom, and the students know it… teachers don’t just sit at a desk a bark orders or ignore those who struggle – we gently nudge and sometimes even carry students through academic and social struggles. These students are our responsibility and we take that very seriously.”

Cock said seven academic advisors counsel students if they have problems, transportation issues or curriculum problems. She said their block scheduling allows for flexibility, including a later start for those students who need it.

They also cater to teen parents by offering free child and infant care while they are going to school.

The alternative high school serves 16, 17 and 18-year-old students and offers the Michigan Merit curriculum, which has high school graduation requirements designed to prepare students for 21st century jobs.

The young adult program for 19-year-old students covers high school completion for the General Equivalency Diploma. There are also separate English as a Second Language and GED programs for students 20 and over.
Cock said each student has their own unique reasons why an alternative public high school is best for them.

“We have a variety of issues,” Cock said. “We have 1,100 students here and probably 1,100 reasons.”

She said family transiency that has placed students in multiple schools has caused gaps in their education. She said special classes and tutors help those students work toward their diplomas.

For other students, pregnancy, behavioral issues or just “not fitting in” have brought them to Advantage Academy.

“Many of our students have been beaten down by tragedies beyond their control and they are forced to assume very adult responsibilities before they are ready,” Izzi said. “Since many of our students have faced similar struggles, they are very accepting of each other. Many… students have found a home (at Advantage Academy) that they could not find elsewhere.”

“A lot of people think high school is like the best days of their lives, but high school can be very uncomfortable for many people,” Cock said. “What I find with my students here is they are really a great bunch of students. They are very understanding and tolerant of diversity here.”

She said they offer a new academic community and fresh start.

“We can say to a student, ‘I know you had issues where you were before, and things weren’t working there. But what are you prepared to do to help make things work here?’ – and this is a place for you to get a fresh start,” Cock said.

In addition to creating a climate where students are accountable for their own decisions, she said that teachers work with them to help them learn to make good choices.

Izzo added that when teachers show their support, students learn to believe in themselves.

“Many students will give up without the constant support from their teachers,” Izzo said. “It’s exhausting, and sometimes seems futile, but our students often need us to believe in them before they believe in themselves.”

Cock said other program elements help the teens learn life skills while having fun. A popular golf program, run in part by volunteers, teaches team-building skills, and has enrolled up to 120 students, she said. An annual golf outing with local police officers provide students with positive interactions with law enforcement officials.

Other volunteers provide what Cock describes as an “amazing amount of support,” ranging from a food pantry, a low-cost fresh produce co-op, to an “angel tree” with gifts for children during the holidays.

“When you look at the breadth of our programming we actually affect families from Detroit down to Monroe, and from Grosse Ille as far in as Belleville,” Cock said.

She said many of their students never expected to graduate from high school, which makes their graduation day even more joyful. Last year she said 165 students graduated from their alternative high school.

“To be able to get that diploma and walk across that stage is huge,” Cock said.

She said while graduation time is heartwarming, they still help graduates with tutoring if they encounter problems at the community college level.

“I always say to them, ‘Come on back – someone here will help you with that – you’re not on your own; we’re going to be here for you,’” Cock said.

She said they teach their students to understand that their education and their future is in their own hands.

“We don’t have a lot of parents that are active in our student’s lives, and that’s one of the reasons they end up here,” Cock said. “But once they’re here, they begin to value their education and to learn that their education is really in their hands and it’s up to them to make the good choices, to work a little harder, to stick it out, ask questions… and to try and move forward to make some hard decisions for what’s best for you. Because you’ve got your life out there that you have to get started on.”