Fortunately for Kyle, Michigan didn’t stop at just passing legislation, disseminating data, and promulgating best practices. Students need alternative routes for earning a traditional high school diploma, and so MDE started funding EETT competitive grant programs to bring changes in instructional models that would lead to improved opportunities and outcomes for at-risk students.

Kyle now is one of 540 students enrolled in Westwood Community School’s Cyber High School. This is a pilot program, operating under a state superintendent-approved seat time waiver, that employs a constructivist, online learning model patterned after the United Kingdom’s “Not School,” a research-based program designed expressly for re-engaging dropouts. Westwood students enroll full time as “researchers,” and they work with “mentors” and “experts” (i.e., certified and highly qualified teachers) to earn credit towards the Michigan Merit Curriculum graduation requirements by completing cross-curricular projects. Researchers work collaboratively and/or independently at their own speed in this year-round, 24-7 program. In addition to providing instruction that boasts a six-to-one ratio of students to teachers, Westwood provides researchers with computers, broadband connectivity, and access to in-person learning lab sessions.

“I was very skeptical and just immediately thought, ‘Online learning … you mean like college? Well, I’m screwed then. I can’t pass high school, what am I going to do in college?'” says Kyle, who is now 19. “But without this school, I would be at my job where I am now–a bus boy. Now, in my future, I don’t see myself as a bus boy. I see myself as a computer graphic and modeling designer. To do that, I need a college diploma. To do that, I need a high school education.”

With students like Kyle re-engaged, and owning their own academic success, demand is rising. In December, MDE funded a larger EETT competitive grant to expand the program to four other locations around the state, including the most remote regions of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Early success

Michigan’s dropout prevention and re-engagement strategy is starting to work: In the two years Michigan has reported actual graduation and dropout rates, the number of dropouts has dipped by 591 students, or 1.7 percent, even as overall enrollment climbed. Perhaps Michigan is experiencing the “Hawthorne Effect” by merely focusing on the problem, but the decline signals that concerted effort could make even larger and lasting gains by lowering dropout rates, boosting graduation totals and college enrollment, increasing standards of living, and lowering unemployment and incarcerations.

“I’m excited about my future,” says Kyle. “My new high school has given me a second chance [that] many students … have never been given. The school doesn’t feel like a school all the time. … Hopefully graduating is just my first step.”

Bruce Umpstead is the state director of educational technology and data coordination for the Michigan Department of Education. Kyle Grigg is a student at Michigan’s Westwood Cyber High School.