‘We just don’t give up:’ How one alternative school is reaching homeless, dropout youth throughout Michigan

When Covenant Academies Foundation sought to open its first high school for homeless, dropout, and at-risk youth in 2014, they had everything lined up – a strong sense of purpose, support from a major charter school authorizer, and the perfect building. They just needed the money. That was about the time that IFF began lending in Michigan, and a long-term partnership was born.

“From the very beginning, IFF really believed in our mission, and we were very grateful for that,” said Gretchen LaHaie, Covenant’s Chief Operating Officer. “Going to any other bank, people kind of laughed at us – to them, we were just a tiny school that hadn’t even opened our doors yet. But IFF believed in what we were doing, they knew our founder’s history with schools and homeless youth, and they understood the importance of our authorization from Grand Valley State University.”

Since then, the Muskegon-based school has been a big success – at the end of its fourth year, it has 250 students enrolled and has graduated more than 100 kids. In January 2017, Covenant opened a second location in Kalamazoo, where more than 150 kids are currently enrolled. Now the nonprofit organization is working to open another school in Saginaw, expected to open later in 2018.  IFF has provided financing for all three locations, totaling more than $2 million.

According to LaHaie, the Covenant schools conduct almost no marketing, but communities continue to seek them out and students continue to show up through word of mouth. Perhaps that’s because of their uncommon model and mission focused on preventing youth homelessness and youth incarceration – all of which started with the school’s founder, Sam Joseph.

The origin story goes like this – Joseph worked nearly 25 years in the field of psychiatric services, and he later felt a calling to minister to at-risk youth. He founded a shelter in Detroit that has served 60,000 homeless youth since 1997. While there, he noticed that kids showed up during school days. He got to know them and their reasons for being homeless. He heard them say they didn’t just want a GED; they wanted a high school diploma like their peers. And so he opened three schools in Detroit, and another in Grand Rapids, that provided flexible schedules and supportive services to address the barriers preventing these students from succeeding at traditional schools. He retired from day-to-day management of this organization in 2014 to start Muskegon Covenant Academy – the first of the three Covenant Academies high schools that serve homeless, dropout, and otherwise at-risk students.

“With this project, IFF was really partnering with the local Muskegon community – our school was just a conduit,” Joseph said.

“We serve all kinds of kids at all stages of crisis. We’re not going to be able to fix all the crises, but our goal is to provide them with some relief and some love,” LaHaie said. “Most of these kids have been through a lot. They are used to people walking out on them and leaving them behind and giving up on them. We just don’t give up.”

Kids who have faced extreme barriers – teen pregnancy/parenting, homelessness, abuse, neglect, incarceration, insufficient family support, extreme poverty – can be tough to reach. LaHaie continued: “‘Not giving up’ on them means really getting to know them – not just their names, but where they came from, where they live, who takes care of them, and how they got there. It means knocking on doors and knocking on neighbors’ doors and hunting down students until it’s clear why they aren’t in school and what they need to get back in the classroom.”

Once those needs are identified, it’s LaHaie’s job to re-allocate resources to meet those needs. Some examples of barrier-breaking services include: staying open until 8 p.m. so that students working during the day can still attend school at night; providing daycare services for students who have children; ensuring that students have access to shelter, clothing, and food; staying open year-round; enrolling new students every day; and serving students between the ages of 16 and 22.

As Joseph has said: “We accept these kids as they come to us, seek to understand their challenges, and help to remove the barriers, all while offering each student unconditional love and absolute respect.”

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