Detroit students whose discipline issues have proved too much for their schools to handle finally have a way to stay in school in the city.
Years after the district’s last alternative high school shut down, the Detroit school board on Tuesday voted to open a new school for students whose repeated violations of district rules could otherwise lead to a suspension or expulsion.
Located on the site of the former Catherine Ferguson Academy, the new school is part of a broader effort to overhaul discipline in the district, which meted out 16,000 suspensions last year. The movement to make schools less punitive followed concerns that zero-tolerance school discipline policies push children out of school and onto the streets.
Starting with the new school year, the rewritten code of conduct will require schools to show they’ve tried to improve a student’s behavior by means besides suspension, such as contacting a parent, before they can remove the student from school. The code also emphasizes restorative justice, a collection of practices that allows students to take responsibility for their actions and make amends.
The ultimate goal is to eradicate out-of-school suspensions entirely, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has said. In the meantime, the alternative school will give students a place to learn when their home school throws up its hands.
“When students are making mistakes, and they’re given out-of-school suspension and not returning to school, that leads to [higher] dropout rates and to disengagement,” Vitti said. He noted that students who are given long suspensions often never return to school.
The new school will operate much like any other in the district, with a principal and teachers. It will also get a team of specialists — a dean of culture, an attendance agent, a school culture facilitator, a social worker, and a guidance counselor — to take on the non-academic problems that can underlie bad behavior.
Students would be referred to the school after repeatedly disrupting their home school, Vitti said. They would be placed at the alternative school only with their parents’ approval; otherwise, they would not attend school during the suspension.
Students would spend between three and six months at the school, leaving only after discussion between the principal and the parent. They might attend until the end of a semester, then return to their original school or a different school.
While some middle schools offer an alternative-school program, it hasn’t been available to high schoolers in years. The last alternative high school in the district — Detroit City High School — closed in 2013. Another, Barsamian Preparatory Academy, closed in 2012.
Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a board member, welcomed the district’s return to an alternative school model.
“Every child in the city of Detroit deserves to be educated, no matter what the barriers are,” she said.
She blamed cost-cutting efforts by state-appointed emergency managers for the disappearance of alternative programs, which are fully staffed but tend to be smaller than mainstream campuses. When Barsamian closed in 2011, 56 students were enrolled.
School districts across Michigan use alternative school programs, in part because they offer more focused attention to high-need students, said Wendy Zdeb, president of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals.
Students in these programs “are more likely to have small class sizes, and they’re more likely to have a curriculum that’s tailored to them,” she said.
The new school is expected to start small as the new code of conduct goes into effect this fall, Vitti said
It will be called Catherine Ferguson Alternative Academy, after the school for teen mothers that previously occupied the space, according to a school board document. Several years after the school closed amid a wave of cost cutting, the name still holds some luster left from the media spotlight that focused on the school’s high attendance and graduation rates.
In response to a question from Misha Stallworth, a board member, Vitti said at a committee meeting last month that he hopes to add a program for teen mothers but has not yet identified a school to house such a program.