LANSING - Some alternative education students are finding a new way to receive their high school diplomas.
The Widening Advancement for Youth Program, a nonprofit organization that began two years ago, allows students to earn a diploma from their local school district without attending actual classes.
Instead, students get a computer and Internet access at home to complete projects that are designed to meet state educational standards in multiple subjects, allowing them to earn multiple credits through a single project.
Currently the Clio Area School District and the Hale Area School District, along with the Washtenaw, Genesee and Livingston intermediate school districts, offer the program.
A campus in Engadine serves the Upper Peninsula.
The state pays for the program through funding for alternative education.
According to Beth Baker, co-founder of the WAY Program, students develop their projects for approval by an assigned mentor whom they contact daily by phone or email.
The program also offers face-to-face instruction through on-campus labs that provide individual help, as well as lessons to help students complete their projects.
Baker said the project-based curriculum provides a hands-on approach to learning about subjects students enjoy.
"We are able to incorporate content standards on an application and synthesis level, rather than just a knowledge base," Baker said. "This way the students are more motivated because it's something they are interested in."
One student in the U.P. built fish cribs to analyze habitats, according to Heather Luoto, project manager for U.P. Global Schools, which facilitates the program in the U.P.
Luoto said the student incorporated math and biology standards, as well as English standards by doing a report.
According to Baker, many teens don't leave regular schools because of academic difficulties but rather because "it's not relevant in their lives, - it's not making a connection."
Many of the 740 enrolled statewide students have full-time jobs, children or health problems that make it difficult to attend a regular alternative education school, Baker said.
Tim Jackson, director of the WAY Program in Livingston County, said the program provides an "ideal situation for a student who has trouble with time-bound or place-bound constraints."
Livingston's program, which started last September, has 60 students, many of whom are single parents, pregnant teens or students that have been expelled from other schools.
"This is another way to make it possible for that critical mass of kids that don't fit in otherwise to have a chance," Jackson said.
Jackson said that the program has shown initial success.
According to Jackson, 44 percent of Livingston's WAY Program participants have earned more credits this year on average then they had at their regular high schools.
Students still are held to the same standards and go through the same grading and evaluation process as traditional students, Jackson said.
"It's not an easier way to get a diploma, it's a different way," Jackson said.
Luoto said some students live in communities that don't offer alternative education schools or GED programs.
"We have two students on two different islands that are only accessible by ferry or plane," Luoto said. "In some communities this is the only option the student has."
According to Luoto, the program in the U.P. has 39 participants, most from the Sault St. Marie and St. Ignace areas.
Students in the U.P. aren't required to attend lab hours because of the vast distances they would have to travel.
J.R. Rauschert, vice president of the Michigan Alternative Education Organization, an advocacy group, said that computer-based programs do a good job at helping students earn credits.
However, Rauschert said that such programs fall short of filling the need to build relationships with students.
"There is an awful amount of kids who need someone there, a mentor or a guide," Rauschert said. "They need someone to encourage them, someone that could help them pass what crisis they're having."
According to Rauschert, face-to face interaction is "tremendously important." Computer-based programs will "help some kids, but they will not help the truly troubled student."
Rauschert, a retired alternative education teacher at Holt Public Schools, said the poor economy and tightening budgets make districts look more towards computer-based alternative education.
Baker said the WAY Program will expand to Muskegon, Niles and Lakeview in Montcalm County over the summer.
She said the program works because of its uniqueness and focus on students.
"It is a completely different way of approaching alternative education, Baker said. "We've taken away the adult complications and focused on learning."