November 4, 2016 — We all want choices in life. Choices in the food we eat, the careers we choose, the cars we drive, the devices we use, and more. So why not have choices in our educational endeavors? Berrien Springs Public Schools (BSPS) is dedicated to providing students and families choices for the way they want to “do school.” Whether a student wants to learn in the building, online, online in the building, at home, in a center, at their own pace, on their own time, or in the community, Berrien Springs has it covered. BSPS goes beyond offering minimal options for learning and seeks ways to help students reach their full potential to be successful as they define it.
Berrien Springs is a district in the far southwest corner of Michigan that impacts over 3,300 students across the state with 1,961 on campus. Many of the over 1,400 students being educated in the virtual and partnership programs are partial FTE students meaning they do not take a full course load. Sixty-five to seventy percent are at-risk students. Fifty-one percent of students in all BSPS programs are white with the remaining coming from a very diverse group. Many students have English as their second language. Andrews University, whose campus population represents 92 countries, is in Berrien Springs. Children of Andrews University’s faculty, staff, and students attend BSPS so the district spends a great deal of time teaching about living in a global community.
Involving all stakeholders (staff, students, community, and families) in the educational process is the mission of BSPS. There is a strong focus on students’ needs and success at Berrien Springs. “Caring is more than a motto, it’s part of our mission.” said Dave Eichberg, BSPS Superintendent. One example of focusing on students’ needs came when the district realized that students enrolled in the band program significantly declined after middle school. After looking at the data, the district realized that Seventh-day Adventist students could not participate in Friday night marching band performances at the football games because they occurred after sunset. Rather than keeping the status quo and separating these students from the music program, the district moved the marching band performances from half-time to the beginning of the football games. Because of their heart for kids, the district has taken on many more difficult challenges.
The feel of Berrien Springs’ campus is similar to a college campus where students are coming and going all day. This was unsettling for Dave Eichberg when he first came to the district as the high school principal. “I wasn’t used to students not staying in the building and going from one room to another. Now I can’t imagine them staying in the building all day.” Students fluidly move from one program to another, taking courses at the public high school, the virtual academy, Project Lead The Way STEM building, CTE at other schools, and through the home school partnership. In order to have this movement around campus be successful, the district has high expectations for behavior. Because there are so many cultures represented at BSPS, it is imperative that they spend the first full week going over the district rules and modeling them in each space of the buildings so that students fully understand the expected behavior when in the learning environments.
In 2006, Berrien Springs was in a similar position to many Michigan districts with declining enrollment, cutting of programs, and low levels of achievement. But due to a supportive community, exceptional staff, and advancement in technology, BSPS has been able to successfully thrive. Offering choices to students and families has shown how a district can turn around. Because students and families have chosen Berrien Springs Public Schools, the district has been able to bring back an award winning performing arts program and discover additional revenue streams that have generated new jobs over the last 10 years. The district also uses zero-based budgeting where each program starts with a budget of $0 each year. Every program must build their budget based on their needs for the coming year rather than on the dollars they received the year before. This has eliminated the unnecessary spending that happens with traditional budgeting and allows the district to evaluate each program on a yearly basis.
Eichberg credits the success of Berrien Springs’ programs on the community who is accepting of choices in education whether it’s traditional, virtual, home school, academies, alternative, etc. “Our organization has been able to change and evolve to serve kids most effectively because of the support of our community. Our Board is also incredibly supportive and allows leaders in this district to lead.” which has allowed Berrien to build a culture of learning and achieving. Leaders at BSPS view change as opportunities and spend their time, resources, and energy innovating, taking risks, and creatively problem solving instead of seeing barriers and getting tied up in just fixing problems.
Staff is very critical to the success of Berrien Springs’ programs. While other districts are cutting or not filling positions, something Berrien did until 2006, BSPS continues to add or keep positions to meet their students’ needs. In addition to hiring the right people for the right positions, the district spends a lot of money on training. Teachers participate in personal learning communities (PLCs) and a model of ‘teachers teaching teachers’ (observing other teachers and providing feedback) is embedded into the instructional day. The district staff runs the New Teacher Academy and most professional development (rather than outside experts). Just as choice is offered to students, plenty of choices are offered to teachers to learn and grow.
The role of computer technology has greatly impacted the programs at BSPS and has not replaced teachers as many in the education community fear. The Virtual Academy, Discovery Academy, Computer Science STEM program, and Success Virtual Learning Centers rely on computers for student learning. In addition, the traditional public programs have embraced individual student devices as well as Google Classroom, which is used throughout the district. Students in grades 9-12 are issued Chromebooks because of their versatility as both a laptop and a tablet. (Middle school students will be getting Chromebooks in 2017-18.) While K-5 students do not yet have 1-to-1 devices, classrooms share carts of iPads. The purchase of devices comes from general fund rather than a bond so the cost of devices is built into the budget. Before providing campus students with Chromebooks the district surveyed students/families to learn how many had internet access. When the results showed less than 100% had internet, the district developed a system for families to apply for mifi cards/units so they could access the internet from home.
Achievement rates and graduation rates at Berrien Springs may not be the highest in the state, but there continues to be growth with many students growing more than one grade level each year. Superintendent Eichberg views this as a sign of success. Measuring student growth has evolved over the years as BSPS has realized new models and tools to collect student data points. For example, the district adopted standards-based grading for K-8 students three years ago. Berrien Springs is AdvancedEd Accredited district-wide. Of the 899 Michigan school districts, they are one of only 83 with this distinction and the only one in Berrien County. Many districts in the state are AdvancedEd Accredited, but in just one or two buildings.
The following are highlights of the choices offered at Berrien Springs Public Schools. Because the district has K-5 and 6-12 seat time waivers, students have the option to learn where they want to learn. No matter the program or educational path they choose, every student is a Berrien Springs Public School student.
Berrien Springs began their virtual academy in 2009 after the Michigan Department of Education made seat time waivers available for 6th-12th grade students. The focus of the virtual academy is to develop career and college ready students through flexible learning options. Brandon Waggoner, Director for Berrien Springs Virtual Academy said, “It’s all about the outcome. We want kids to have a plan when they graduate, not just a diploma.” To help kids develop a plan, 9th-10th grade students focus on pre-CTE and exploration of career and college options. Deeper learning occurs in their chosen path in 11th and 12th grades.
Flexibility for students is created through a variety of venues for learning. Students can choose to complete their education via seated, virtual, career technical, and/or dual enrollment courses. By taking a variety of these courses together, students can complete their high school degree as early as three years or earn an associate’s degree in five “high school” years. For a small school who cannot offer all the classes on campus that students are interested in or offer them when students can take them, these are pretty amazing options. The partnership between Berrien Springs Public High School, Berrien Springs Virtual Academy, and the Berrien Springs Home School Partnership gives every student enrolled in Berrien Springs the flexibility to take core classes, elective classes, dual enrollment, early college, and career opportunities in a schedule that fits their needs. For example, a public high school student could take core classes in the building (including some dual enrollment) and electives online; another student may take 100% of their classes virtually; and another student may choose to attend the public high school for math and science, take language arts and social studies online, and electives through the home school partnership. No matter the path they choose, students can work at their own pace and get the support when they need it.
This support is what sets Berrien Springs’ virtual program apart from most high school online courses where students go to a classroom or library to take an online class. “Our teachers are very critical in the success of our students and our program.” said Waggoner. Berrien Springs has 15 online teachers who continually check with their students for understanding of the content. Four of the virtual teachers (math, ELA, science, and elementary/middle school) are physically located in the newly constructed building where students come to work. At least two of the virtual teachers are in the facility at a time so one can assist in the lab while the other can pull students out for interventions or for small group lessons. Waggoner said the interventions and small groups bring back some of the social aspect lost in online classes. “In our model, students are physically interacting with the teacher and other students when they need it, and learning in the process.”
The behavior expectations in the virtual academy lab are similar to other programs at Berrien Springs, an on-task atmosphere where work is expected. Students have the option to take Edgenuity courses with a Berrien Springs online teacher or take courses through the statewide micourses.org catalog. A pre- and post-test is taken for every BSPS course to measure student growth. (Berrien Springs started collecting online student growth data before the Michigan Department of Education required districts to do so.) Average growth data, based on NWEA testing, is an average of 1.75 years in the areas of Math, Reading, and Science. All tests are proctored either on campus or through the use of GoTo Meeting where the teacher can view the student’s desktop as they are taking the online test.
The definition of a partnership in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is a business that is owned by partners. This definition can be applied to education in the sense that schools can be “owned” by partners or multiple stakeholders. Partners pool their strengths to make the business/school stronger. What began nine years ago as a conversation between stakeholders at a conference table has become a solid educational program providing over 850 students choices in their education.
Flexibility. Integrated content. Putting students first. Project-based learning. Parental support. Community engagement. Student ownership of learning and accountability. These are words and phrases that describe the Berrien Springs Home School Partnership and ideals that many public educators would like more of in their classrooms. “Public education is here and available, but we need choices.” stated Superintendent Eichberg. “A lot of what we do in the district is due to our Partnership. The interest level keeps growing in the program.”
The Home School Partnership has helped Berrien Springs understand flexibility in educating children in the district. Students at the public school can take the Partnership electives. Partnership students take virtual courses and courses in the public school building. Virtual students take electives with the Partnership. Not only is there flexibility in location and offerings, but individual students can move at their own pace. Eighth graders in the Partnership have taken college courses and students have the opportunity to explore unique career offerings such as artistic welding. Robotics is one program that began in the Home School Partnership and now students from virtual, public, and home school all participate together.
After working with the home school families, the district started looking at project-based learning and visited High Tech High in California. District staff spent three-years training in the use of project-based learning (PBL). PBL has been integrated into all secondary instruction. Berrien Springs has focused their PBL on four Cs…collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and creativity. All projects in the classes are built around these district standards.
One of the most popular elective courses offered in the Partnership is the Field Trip class. Over 250 students participate in this class with their parents. Becky Halcombe, Field Trip Coordinator, says parents help students continue their learning after the field trip. “The parents help to insure that the ‘transfer takes place’ … as they carry that newfound enthusiasm home and reinforce it in a natural way.” Ten trips are offered throughout the semester and students must sign up for a minimum of four. Students are exposed to many different areas of life and disciplines. In the past, field trips included manufacturing facilities such as Subaru and Jiffy Mix and the Chicago Symphony. This year the field trip offerings include the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, the Art Prize in Grand Rapids, a perfumery in Indiana, the Gerald Ford Museum in Grand Rapids as well as a fish hatchery, landfill, orchard, water treatment plant, and performing arts. Other unique classes offered by the Partnership include Animal Husbandry, Landscaping, MinecraftEDU, and Woodworking.
The Home School Partnership is open to part-time Berrien Springs’ students in grades K-12 and every student has a Michigan certified teacher assigned to them. While most courses are offered in the community rather than in the buildings, there is cross over. Some of the computer, art, shop, and cooking classes are offered on campus when Berrien Springs’ facilities/rooms are not being used for public school courses.
Sharon Haynes, Home School Partnership Director, is the right person for the position. As a home school parent, she understands the needs and concerns of parents who want to be more involved in their child’s education and who are looking for choices. Working with her team, they develop interesting, challenging, and interactive courses for the program. Google Classroom is used in the Partnership as well as throughout the entire BSPS district and Facebook is an added communication tool used between families and the Partnership.
Berrien Springs Public Schools has embraced project-based learning (PBL) in many ways in the district. The most recent addition has been using Project Lead The Way (PLTW) curriculum. Under director, Emma Haygood, BSPS has implemented PLTW throughout the district. The elementary program uses PLTW Launch for their science curriculum, middle school takes semester electives through PLTW Gateway, and the high school has a STEM program using PLTW. The location for the high school PLTW program is fitting as the building was used as a job skills workspace before Berrien Springs purchased it.
For 90 minute blocks, all year long, 9th-12th graders can study biomedical science, engineering, or computer science. Students say these courses have more hands-on science than the high school science classes and prepare them for the future [in the workforce]. In the biomedical course observed, students were examining evidence in microscopes, reading autopsy reports on their Chromebooks, writing questions and comments on the desktops, and recording notes in their scientific journals. In this Principles of Biomedical Science course, students are using the same equipment and tools used by lab professionals to determine factors that led to the death of a fictional person. BSPS also offers a second biomedical course called Human Body Systems. Students in this course learn about the human body as they add organs and tissue to a skeletal Maniken®.
It takes more than engaging PLTW curriculum to make the program successful. The teachers and community are a large part of its success as well. Teachers go through extensive training to teach PLTW. High school teachers spend two weeks “taking” the course so that they have completed everything the students will be doing. Middle school teachers spend one week, while elementary teachers have a three-day training and online professional development on the modules. Elementary staff also train other staff. In addition, “We have a lot of businesses and organizations that partner with us for the PLTW program. Some of them serve on the advisory counsel while others provide guest speakers or open their doors to students for field trips or internships.” said Haygood. Students will be able to earn college credit for the PLTW courses once BSPS completes the accreditation process beginning in Spring 2017.
Students in grades 9-12 who are looking for a non-traditional way to obtain their high school diploma can attend the Berrien Springs Discovery Academy. This program meets the needs of students who want to master subjects at their own pace. Full-time teachers are available to the students both at the site and online, and regularly check-in with students to keep them on track to graduate. Students are required to come to the building on campus, but can earn the freedom to work from home. Eligible students can also take CTE and dual enrollment courses. For those enrolled in the Berrien Springs’ Alternative Education program, a Discovery Academy 22 Track Diploma is available. A traditional BSHS diploma can be earned for those wanting to complete their diploma fully online. Graduation ceremonies are held twice a year for students graduating from the academy.
Berrien Springs’ Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) Academy is another example of how the district is dedicated to helping every individual child succeed and how they hired the right person for the job. Consistent data shows that academic achievement is tied to student behavior and attitude. To improve student academic achievement, Berrien Springs has intentionally changed the structure of in-school suspension with the hopes of decreasing out-of-school suspensions through the use of the PBIS Academy. The intention is to create a positive culture at the middle and high schools to decrease the repeat behaviors that affect the learning environment. PBIS builds on the Shamrock Pride values to create this culture.
The new program is run by Luke Antvelink, an energetic, passionate, and visionary special education teacher and coach. Luke is taking a proactive approach to changing the culture in the buildings. Rather than sitting in an in-school suspension room waiting for students to be sent there, he is logging 16,000-20,000 steps a day in the district. He believes student behaviors can be changed through relationships. “I sit with kids at lunch, talk to them in the halls, pull them aside if I hear about something going on in their lives that may lead to disruptive behaviors, and I co-teach so I can be in the classrooms with them.” said Antvelink. “I want to understand why the student behavior is happening so it makes sense to talk to kids early on and develop those relationships.” Antvelink also checks on kids after they’ve left the PBIS room. Not only is he building relationships with students, but he also builds them with teachers, helping them to understand the purpose of Shamrock Pride for recognizing and rewarding positive behavior.
While Antvelink would prefer to be out in the buildings interacting with students, sometimes they are sent to the PBIS room. “I want to keep the atmosphere in here as far away from discipline as possible and be seen as the guy who is picking up the pieces.” He wants students to see that there are consequences to behaviors, both positive and negative, and views the program as a character advancement program. “Students don’t sleep in this room. There is tutoring, independent practice, and behavior intervention time.” Eventually he would like to add peer-to-peer mentoring with a career pathway focus. Similar to in-school suspension, the length of the stay in the PBIS room depends on the severity of the behavior, but the goal at Berrien Springs is to keep students learning and get them back in their classes as soon as possible.
Giving students and families choices begins early at Berrien Springs. After observing master teachers in other Berrien County districts, BSPS opened their first Young 5’s program in 2015-16. The program is designed as a growth year for students rather than a retention program. “This year’s kindergarteners [those in the first Young 5’s program] are strong students with many acting as leaders in their classes.” said Darla Campbell, Mars Elementary School Principal. Young 5’s use curriculum and standards similar to the kindergarten classes. On this particular visit, students were identifying letters on an interactive whiteboard to reveal a picture. The ideal class size for the program is 18 and accepts students as young as four years old, with a waiver. Like other Young 5’s programs, some of the students are academically ready for kindergarten, but still need to grow socially or behaviorally.
Another program at Mars Elementary is Project Lead The Way (PLTW). This year (2016-17), both elementary schools in Berrien Springs started to use PLTW for their entire science curriculum. In addition to the PLTW science modules, Grades 4 and 5 add science curriculum to meet state standards, while grades K-3 follow PLTW content. The second grade class observed was working on PLTW’s programming module in Scratch, Jr. on their iPads. (Students in the high school PLTW Computer Science program move onto writing code and have taught their peers during the Hour of Code held each December.) Last year a group of second graders presented coding to teachers at MACUL (photo at right).
In addition to programming, the second graders will cover three PLTW science modules for a full year of science curriculum. “Every module has an engineering and growth mindset.” said Emma Haygood, Curriculum and PLTW Coordinator. Students in the second grade class were also familiar with solving their own problems. When the teacher referenced “getting off the escalator,” the students knew exactly what she was talking about. (Students watched Stuck on an Escalator video as part of their learning to solve their problems.)
Berrien Springs incorporated project-based learning in their elementary schools after seeing the benefits with their home school families. In the project-based model, subjects are integrated rather than teaching as stand-alone blocks such as math, language arts, and social studies. Second grade teacher, Renee Peddie, loves teaching in this type of environment. “I am so fortunate to work in a district where innovation and a growth mindset are supported and encouraged!” said Peddie. “At BSPS, teachers are given freedom to modify instruction in order to best meet the academic needs of our students.” Read about her PLTW Launch experience and transition to content integration.
Peddie uses literacy circles in her class to cover multiple content areas through reading. Her students know their NWEA scores, how to read the report, and what they need to work on to improve. This ownership of learning begins in first grade at Berrien Springs. Like all programs observed at BSPS, the classroom atmosphere is a place in which to learn. In this classroom students have alternative seating. Instead of tables and desks, there are fluffy chairs, a couch, and milk crates with padded seats. Students can rearrange their seating for the variety of learning and projects they do. Shamrock Pride is also present throughout the classroom and building. At the elementary schools, school culture includes filling buckets to show their pride in themselves and their school.
As one of the first K-5 seat time waiver districts in Michigan, Berrien Springs offers elementary students and families the ability to learn together at home 100% of the time. A Michigan certified teacher is assigned to each child to assist families with content, strategies, and support. Like all other students in the district, seat time waiver students have a variety of choices including online and home school partnership elective courses.
In addition to the choices above, students have additional opportunities for acceleration such as dual credit and the county’s Early College consortium. Any student at BSPS can choose to take career and technical education (CTE) courses as well. Berrien County Career and Technical Education courses are offered throughout the county in a shared time program at the high schools. A variety of programs are offered in each of the career pathways by each district. Forty percent of BSPS juniors and seniors participate in the CTE program, the highest in the county. Students can earn college credit for many of the programs.
Berrien County Truancy Academy is housed in a BSPS building and run by the Berrien Springs’ staff in partnership with the Berrien County Trial Court system. The program is for students who end up in the juvenile court system for poor attendance. All K-12 districts in Berrien County can refer students to the program that is funded by the BSPS’ foundation allowance and the county. This program is beneficial for the 40-50 students who may have otherwise dropped out of school.
Berrien Springs is not only concerned about the kids in their own community, they care about providing an educational avenue for all students in Michigan. The 4-year cohort dropout rate in 2014-15 was 9.12%. While the Michigan dropout rate has been decreasing over the past few years, this population of students still has the right to an education, one that supports and encourages them to finish school. Berrien Springs fills that need through their Success Virtual Learning Centers (SVLC). Success Virtual Learning Centers is a non-traditional education program partnering with other public school systems in Michigan to serve students who have dropped out of school or at risk of dropping out. In these contractual partnerships, students become Berrien Springs’ students and BSPS owns their data (i.e, graduation rates, attendance, achievement, etc.). BSPS also runs the program from obtaining and outfitting the facilities to staffing. A percentage of the FTE that Berrien Springs receives goes back to the partnering district who can promote their program.
There are currently 12 SVLC across Michigan with over 1,200 students, and BSPS is in the process of partnering with two new districts. While some centers are store fronts in strip malls or a room in a RESA/ISD, all centers have a similar look and feel inside. Classical music is playing when students arrive to create an expectation for learning (students can listen to their own type of music with headphones while working). It is apparent that the district is willing to spend money on furniture, flooring, equipment, and devices rather than using what the public school discarded or they could find at a bargain store. For a population who is 85-95% at-risk, these amenities show them they matter and encourage them to come to the center.
While 85-95% of the students attending one of the Success Virtual Learning Centers are credit deficient, 5-15% want a flexible schedule or want to accelerate their learning. One student enrolled with Berrien Springs’ SVLC so he could flex his schedule to try out for the Olympic cycling team, another to dual enroll for pre-med classes, and another to finish school in three years. Other students want flexibility to work while going to school or care for family members. “Some come to the program as a stop-gap to overcome what is going on in life at the time and then they go back to their traditional school. Others graduate from the program.” said Bruce Boyer, Center Director for the Three Rivers Success Virtual Learning Center.
While students are given a laptop and mobile hotspot so they can complete their work anywhere, anytime, many choose to come to the drop-in center on a regular basis. The drop-in center in Three Rivers averages 15-20 students on a normal day. Many of these students stay for two to three hours. Other students stay all day. Like all students, some are self-driven while others need direction every day. When they come to the center they agree to work the entire time they are there. Once they leave for the day, they cannot return (similar to a high school dance policy) except in special circumstances.
Students are held accountable for their educational progress, but have support systems in place to help them be successful. The first class every student takes is an academic success class and they earn .5 elective credits for it. According to Boyer, “Nobody fails a class here. The teachers work with students on their goals on a daily basis. It’s how we implement our three-tiered intervention system.” The three-tiered intervention model begins with students agreeing to complete 30% of a class each week. When “life happens” and students drop below 30%, limiting internet to only educational sites or not allowing personal music are used as interventions. If a student drops below 14%, they get a strike, but unlike baseball, a strike can be taken away if the student reaches a new goal that is set. Also unlike baseball, three strikes does not mean a student gets kicked out of the program. Three strikes means that a conversation with the student/parents is held to discuss where the student is and what they are doing, using the data that has been collected such as time in the center, log-ins, and time working on the classes. A contract is made between the program director, student, and parents that details what the student agrees to do to be successful in completing their courses. If the student completes the contract, it will be rescinded. “Every kid is given “lifesavers” through the intervention process as much as possible. Even long after count day.” said Boyer. Jim Bermingham, Off-Campus Programs Coordinator, added, “Once you show them they can succeed, they become addicted to it.”
Like all Berrien Springs programs, the teachers are what make the SVLC a success. Full-time teachers are hired to work with students to create the lowest student-teacher ratio in
Michigan. The Three Rivers program has four certified teachers who rotate in the facility. When not in the facility, they are assisting students online. In addition to using phone, email, and software messaging, they also use nontraditional methods for communication and tracking such as Skype/Google Hangouts, Google Voice, and Facebook. Because the Center teachers are all over the state, they use Facebook to communicate with one another between centers, and twice a year the staff from all the centers get together for professional development.
In addition to the cost of facilities, equipment, and staff, BSPS hires wrap-around services to support students. Four social workers travel between sites and special education staff are available for online and face-to-face assistance. Students are enrolled after count day (40-50% of Three Rivers SVLC enrollment), and the centers are open throughout the summer for credit recovery, even though the district does not receive funding. Finding what is best for the student is the goal for Berrien Springs and their partner districts.
When students are given choice and voice in their educational pursuits, along with support and encouragement from adults, they will grow academically and succeed in their life pursuits. Berrien Springs Public Schools is committed to providing opportunities for students to reach their full potential in whatever path that they choose. Each path exhibits a culture of learning that has its foundation in The Shamrock Way. Along with hiring passionate and innovative staff, they create partnerships within the community and with parents to provide the supports and experiences students need and want. For families, students, and staff, BSPS is more than a school of choice, it’s a district of choices.