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Muskegon adult, alternative learners 'thriving' under innovative new program

The project-based program at Orchard View Schools' Innovative Learning Center launched earlier this month.
Credit: WZZM

MUSKEGON COUNTY, Mich. — An innovative teaching strategy is hard at work inside a Muskegon County school district.

Orchard View Schools just implemented what’s known as the ‘project-based learning’ technique inside its Innovative Learning Center, the district’s adult and alternative education facility.

District leaders told 13 ON YOUR SIDE students were flourishing under the innovative technique, they said had changed the look and feel of the education experience.

“There’s a lot more flexibility in terms of sort of overcoming some of the barriers that real life creates,” Theresa Tate related.

Tate used to teach in a more traditional K-12 setting, but now guides learners ages 14-22 at the Innovative Learning Center.

“I have 16 and 17-year-old students who have always hated school, in my classroom, reading a book they chose to read and writing poetry,” she explained. “Which is incredible, right?”

Instructors had just wrapped up a Friday morning training session when we stopped by.  

The new project-based program only launched about three weeks ago with the beginning of the school year.

“We are taking the time to find the assets that our learners bring to the table,” Project Leader Nick Kunnen related. “It's not about what they're missing. It's about what they have.”

In excess of 80 learners had enrolled at the time of publication Friday, Kunnen noted.

The district applied the same philosophy to its alternative education programming.

Still in its infancy, as of September, the Learning Center already serves students from six or more school districts.

“We’ve created a culture of acceptance here,” Kunnen said. “We find out what you're good at and then we're going to build on that. We're going to move you from where you're at, to where you would like to be.”

With regard to how the process works in reality, well, remember those story problems you had to solve back in grade school?

Questions like ‘Train A is going this speed, Train B, this speed, what time will they collide?’

The project-based methodology elevates that idea with real-world community-based partnership that push learners to harness their knowledge in devising a product or solution that goes well-beyond the classroom.

“When we started thinking about a project, we think about who in our community would be engaged in work similar to that,” Kunnen explained. “We bring in community experts, so that way, the students can ask the questions that they're curious about.”

“So the teacher is no longer the sage on the stage… the teacher is the guide on the side.”

From there -- adult or otherwise – learners’ progress is measured on an individual basis versus that of their peers.

“That may take some learners three weeks, that might take someone six months to be able to comprehend of all that,” Kunnen noted. “That's the magic with our teachers.”

“I'm doing my dream job here,” Tate laughed. “I'm really excited about what's to come.”

Only a few weeks into the school year, Tate said there were already plenty of success stories.

“I think school is so often framed as preparation for life rather than part of life,” she related. “When we frame it as a prerequisite for being a person, we kind of inherently devalue the education experience… rather than just preparing to go be humans in the world, we are actually being humans in the world.”

Students who complete the program may qualify for a diploma or a GED, depending upon their circumstances.

For more information on Orchard View Schools or the Innovative Learning Center, visit the district’s website.  

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