Grand Rapids School Offers Second Chance for Students

Open the cupboards in most high school administrators’ offices and you’ll likely find typical supplies such as paper, pens, and files.

Thurston King has that stuff too, but he also has a space devoted to winter hats, clean socks, and underwear. If a current or former student has a need, they know they can come to him or other staff at Covenant House Academy, located at 50 Antoine St. SW in Grand Rapids.

Covenant 1The school serves students ages 16 to 22 who need to finish high school credits to graduate. Many are homeless or at-risk, and a majority of students come from Grand Rapids and neighboring Wyoming, although as word has gotten out, some make the trek to school from as far away as Allendale or Comstock Park.

As Retention Manager and Homeless Liaison at the school, King believes students succeed because they’re met where they are. The number of graduating students has increased each of the three years the school has been open in Grand Rapids. Three other schools operate in Detroit through the management of Youth Vision Solutions.

“There’s a need for them to get services,” he said. “We really just try to help everyone on an individual basis.”

Students might get help with grocery shopping or diapers for their children. Two schedule offerings – either 7:45 to 11:45 a.m. or 11:45 a.m. to 4 p.m. – mean some students are able to work a third-shift job before heading into school. Students work at their own pace, completing online classes with the help of certified teachers in their classrooms. King said teachers have to approach assignments and discipline with new methods and lots of patience.

“That’s not always the easiest thing to do, but we try to do what’s best for the students, not what’s easiest for the staff,” King said.

Some of the social elements of a traditional school setting are eliminated, which King believes fosters a low level of conflict between students. Everyone is moving at their own pace, so there’s no mass changing of classes at a bell and there’s no lunch hour – typical times when social problems erupt.

The YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids opened one of its Great Start Readiness Programs onsite at the school late last year. King said it replaced a previous daycare and provides on-site care for children of students, staff, and the community.

“A lot of our students are parents and daycare is a hindrance for them to come to school,” King said.

Several high school students have applied through the YMCA and work at the daycare. King is interested in seeing that partnership grow to provide more opportunities for his students. He said many of them carry a stigma of being “rough”, but observing the high-schoolers watch a Halloween parade last year proved otherwise. The older kids were enthralled with the tiny costumed characters from the daycare and King said their daily presence has definitely enhanced the culture at the school. King’s four-year-old son, T.J., attends.

Thurston King's son T.J., 4, attends the YMCA's Great Start Readiness Program at Covenant House Academy.
Thurston King’s son T.J., 4, attends the YMCA’s Great Start Readiness Program at Covenant House Academy in Grand Rapids.

“I think that kind of makes it an easier atmosphere having kids around the building,” he said.

Many of the high school students have overcome unimaginable obstacles to come back to school, King said. Getting them back into a school is sometimes the biggest success. Eventually, he would like to be able to offer training in specific trades or support beyond high school for those who intend to go to college.

“For us, you don’t stop being our kid because you stop coming to school,” he said.

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Photo credit: Julie Bitely

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