BACK IN 2010, the last few alternative learning environments in Washtenaw County, Michigan were closing their doors. 500 learners, in need of an alternative academic path, were left wondering what their future had in store. Would they return to their old learning environments where they had felt left behind and unsupported? Or, would a new space be provided that was designed to meet their unique circumstances and empower their success, “ensur[ing all learners had] every opportunity available to complete a high school education and be prepared for the next steps in life”?
Looking to achieve the latter, a nine-district partnership formed into the Washtenaw Educational Options Consortium, which today provides three alternative options for learners, including the Washtenaw Alliance for Virtual Education (WAVE). WAVE learners, ages 14-18, come in battling drug addiction, neglect and abuse at home, lack of permanent housing, multiple jobs, and a host of other unique scenarios. The one-way road of traditional schooling simply isn’t going to work for them. Acknowledging this reality, WAVE strives to support their learners in cultivating a sense of empowerment, while at the same time acknowledging the very real hardships each learner is going through.
Taking on the challenge of transforming education for these kids, WAVE started with a time-independent, competency-based structure in which every learner could explore personalized learning paths. Each learner comes into WAVE with such a unique story, the academic focus is only one part in WAVE’s multi-faceted, around-the-clock support network. Every staff member is part educator, part mentor, and part “whatever role needs to be played in the moment.”
With this holistic approach to every child, WAVE gives open-walled learning a whole new meaning. Not only is there a staff member solely dedicated to forming community partnerships, but staff visit their learners at home and work to provide support in every way possible.
Learner agency is infused in every part of WAVE’s learner-centered system. If a learner is disinterested in everything an educator has suggested, the two team up to create a self-designed curriculum that fits the interests and needs of the learner. On the flipside, particularly for learners who have only recently enrolled and have yet to rebuild their self-confidence, WAVE provides a more rigid frame so they are not overwhelmed. Then, as their confidence grows, learners are encouraged to take on full ownership of their learning.
Overall, WAVE provides a learning environment where the burden of carrying the “at-risk” label is all but extinguished from each learner’s self-identification. When this weight is removed, learners go from seeing themselves as “those kids” to acquiring the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to take on any new challenges the world throws their way.