Mercy Health donated a former shelter for teenagers located just one block from the school that was turned into a residence with 22 beds for students in transition. Courtesy Muskegon Covenant Academy
An alternative high school in Muskegon is giving dropouts a better chance at earning their diplomas.
Muskegon Covenant Academy takes a “common sense approach” to addressing the needs of a population whose lives and experiences have made traditional public school a wrong fit for learning, according to Sam Joseph, the school’s founder.
Joseph said many of the students, ages 16-22, deal with issues like mental illness, abusive parents, drug use and homelessness, which led them to drop out of public school.
They realized later, however, that a high school diploma is needed for a successful future, but many other schools won’t take them because of low test scores or other issues.
“We take them,” Joseph said.
The school has 235 students who all heard of it through word of mouth. The school graduates about 35 students per year.
Establishing Muskegon Covenant
Joseph said he is not a trained educator but founded the school, after establishing others in Detroit and Grand Rapids, to prevent youth homelessness and youth incarceration.
In 2014, a group of community leaders realized Muskegon needed a school like that, as well.
Judge Gregory Pittman of the Muskegon County Probate Court Family Division was among those who saw a need for this school, along with Muskegon Public Schools’ then-Superintendent Jon Felske.
Felske had a number of students he knew would not graduate from the traditional public school system.
“We're not going to educate all of our students in the traditional public school setting. It's just not going to happen. Never has and it never will,” said Pittman, who has been a board member for Muskegon Heights Public Schools and the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District.
“I firmly believe that our government has failed to adequately address and uphold its responsibility to provide meaningfully for all students to have a good public education.”
While Pittman said he does not believe market-based schools are the answer, he believes Covenant Academy is an exception because it addresses a specific need for a specific population, acting as a supplement, not creating competition.
The Community Foundation for Muskegon County gave the school a loan while it secured outside funding.
Former Michigan Sen. Goeff Hansen later advocated that the school receive state funding. The school receives public school funding and gets about $275,000 per year in discretionary funds. The school is chartered by Grand Valley State University.
Pittman was the board chair of the school for about three years, starting with its inception, until the Covenant Academies Foundation was created as an umbrella organization for the school in Muskegon and the two Joseph founded later in Kalamazoo and Saginaw.
‘A parent who can teach’
With numerous students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds and unstructured home lives, Joseph said many would likely land in homeless shelters or jail without caring intervention.
“So, I tell my staff, ‘I hire you primarily to be a parent who can teach,’” Joseph said.
The school is year-round, and the teachers get two weeks of vacation.
“My explanation to them is good parents do not take two months off.”
Of the roughly 16 teachers that opened the school and the two hired since, only one has left, and only because she lived far away and got a teaching job closer to home, Joseph said.
The one-on-one model with teachers and caseworkers allows the students to form relationships. There is one staff member for every 14 students.
“The goal is to break as many barriers as possible,” Joseph said.
“They're very loving and very respectful kids. That's something people don't understand. This is a tough population, but nevertheless, they are a most-loving population.”
The tuition-free school focuses on core curriculum only, intending to help the students make up for lost time. Students are required to attend one of three four-hour sessions per day, but they can work at their own pace and take as much time as they need.
Besides the 18 credits needed for a Michigan diploma, Covenant students must demonstrate reading competency and create a senior portfolio to graduate.
Some students begin with nearly no credits and will take four years, while others may finish the program in six months, he said. The point is creating an environment where the students feel welcome, Joseph said.
“Retention is more important than graduation,” he said. “If the kid loves to come to school, he will learn. And if he learns, he will graduate.”
Jaason Borom, who recently spoke at the school’s graduation ceremony, graduated from Muskegon Academy in 2017 at age 22.
He had moved with his mother to Muskegon in 2016 at age 20. The school he was attending in Detroit closed when he was about 15, and he hadn’t attended school since.
Borom found Muskegon Covenant Academy and was interviewed and accepted. Besides helping him earn his diploma, he said teachers helped him craft a résumé and gain skills to enter the workforce. When he was having issues at home partway through his schooling, he said one of the teachers even let him stay with her until he graduated.
“I don't think I would be where I am if it wasn't for that school,” Borom said.
Borom joined the U.S. Army National Guard after graduation and also got a job as a pharmacy technician for Meijer. He’s now a pharmacy technician for Mercy Health and is continuing his military duties until the contract expires in 2023.
Joseph said the staff works to learn about and tear down the barriers keeping students from attending school.
A year after opening, the school began offering a free on-site daycare for children of students. In the first year, 93 babies came to school with their mothers, Joseph said.
The school offers free bus tokens and rides for those with transportation issues.
About three years ago, Joseph said he learned that a quarter of Muskegon Covenant’s students had spotty attendance. About 30 to 40 students were absent on any given day.
He asked the teachers why, and they said it was because those students were regularly moving from one temporary home to another.
“Naturally, when they're looking for a place, they are not interested in coming to school,” Joseph said.
People tend to have a stereotype in mind of what a homeless person looks like, Pittman said, when the more usual circumstance is when children and families don’t have a place they can call home.
“You see a lot of students who fall to the wayside in their education because the more basic need that they have is to be sheltered, to be able to have somewhere to live,” Pittman said. “It's a huge issue that sometimes goes beyond our visible eye.”
So, the solution was to provide a safe environment for those who needed one, so they could focus on completing their studies, Joseph said.
Coincidently, Mercy Health was trying to sell a former shelter for teenagers that was located just a block away from the school. The health system was asking for about a quarter-million dollars. After Joseph met with hospital leadership, they agreed to donate the building to Muskegon Covenant.
The building needed $800,000 in renovations, and Joseph said a group of Muskegon community leaders, including Larry Hines of Hines Corporation, raised the money in three months.
Now called Covenant Hall, the residence has 22 beds, and two are continuously vacant to accommodate emergencies.
The residence is for Muskegon Covenant students, from age 17 and emancipated to age 24. Pittman said it’s for the students who are trying to live independently but just don’t make enough money to provide shelter.
Led by Tiffany Alexander, staff teach residents basic skills about chores and daily life, such as how to use a bank account.
“Once they leave us, we want them to be able to function on their own and be successful,” said Mia Clark-Grissom, Covenant’s retention manager.
Pittman said the expectations around Covenant Hall are the same that would be expected in any well-functioning home.
DHHS gives a grant for staff and food. The pantry and other needs often are filled by local residents and organizations.
“The community has wrapped their arms around us and supported us very well,” Clark-Grissom said.
Students using the housing may stay for up to two years after graduation if they are pursuing postsecondary education. In that case, Joseph said Covenant’s case managers keep in contact with MCC staff to ensure the students are properly supported.
After five years of the school being open, Pittman said he’s “more convinced than ever” that Muskegon Covenant plays an important role.
“It's one more important tool in the toolbox to help us improve the quality of life for people in our communities,” Pittman said.