A Day in the Life at Lake Michigan Academy
Amy Barto, M.Ed.

It is 7:30 am on a cold and icy West Michigan morning in February. Jane, a third grader, enters the lobby in all of her winter gear, her eyes barely peeking out under the knit cap and hood. She is lugging her backpack and balancing her lunch bag as she wishes “Good Morning” to a 6-ft high school boy, Emil, who wishes her a “Good Morning” back as he works on his government assignment on the couch in the lobby. Jane goes on to chat with Becca and Ronnie, two other middle grades students, while they wait to go upstairs to hang up their coats and prepare to start classes.

Jeff, another high school student, comes in, shakes the snow off of his coat, stomps his boots and heads upstairs to open the school store for students who’d like a cup of hot chocolate or cappuccino as they get ready to start their day. Jeff has just completed his one hour commute to school.

A little later, Jaina, another high school student, dashes in concerned she’s going to be late for first hour. She has completed her twenty-five minute commute by bus and ran up the block to get to the building on time. Jaina will dash out again around 11:25 to catch the bus at the end of the block for her forty minute commute to her elective courses at another high school. Jaina’s goal is to prepare for a medical career after high school.

By 7:50 am, thirty students in grades 3-12 will have entered this lobby and will have been welcomed by a teacher, an administrator, a staff member and/or another student with a “Good Morning” or a “How are you today?”. Little Jake, a fifth grader, might even be greeted by Big Jake, an eleventh grader, as they’re walking down the hallway to their first hour classes.

By 7:50 am, students are settled in their first hour classes and the sounds of learning begin, but these halls and classrooms don’t always look like or sound like those in a more traditional elementary, middle school or high school. This is Lake Michigan Academy, a school for students with learning disabilities; a school for students who are unique; a school where that uniqueness is celebrated. A school where their uniqueness is what makes them more than “good enough”.

The Challenge of Learning
To maximize their learning styles, students at this school take courses in multi-age classrooms with curriculum that includes project-based or hands-on instruction in conjunction with state standards. Students like Jane, Jeff and Jaina are active participants in their learning, they are challenged to ask questions and they are taught strategies to overcome learning obstacles. Students are supported to learn not only about reading, writing and arithmetic, but about themselves. They are challenged and supported to master academic content, but they are not expected to be just like anyone else, only to grow and do their best. They are recognized and celebrated for their uniqueness.

One in seven individuals has a learning disability. It is likely that many of these 1 out of 7 individuals have been told, at some point in their life, that they were lazy or dumb. It is also likely that they have been asked “what’s wrong with you?”. Another message that is likely to have been passed on is that they are “not good enough”. Not good enough to graduate with a diploma, not good enough to participate in sports, not good enough to make the honor roll, not good enough to take classes with their friends, and perhaps even not good enough to expect to live on their own after high school.

All schools are currently challenged to include more higher-order, critical-thinking, communication, technological, and analytical skills in their programs because students will be expected to enter a service-oriented, global workplace after they complete school. Schools are also challenged to meet increasing demands for accountability and standards. How can this happen in multi-age classroom? How can this happen if students are not completing three hours of homework at night? And, what is this school? How can there be a graduating class of one? How can a junior high have only seven students? How does a teacher balance instruction for a class that includes 9th through 12th graders?

In today’s age of uncertain futures, this could be scary. I understand those fears, but I can’t help but wonder . . . in what field will I only work with colleagues my own age? Do I regularly need to take work home if I am on track for my goals or have accomplished quite a bit in one day? How much interaction did I have in my junior high classes of twenty-five or thirty students? To develop communication skills, isn’t interaction required? What is it that students really need to learn? As I wonder, I inevitably return to the higher-order, critical-thinking, communication, technological, and analytical skills. I return to reflecting on the reality that students need to be empowered to successfully enter a service-oriented, global workplace after they complete school. I also return to reflecting on the fact that my students have an extra layer of need: they need to learn to know themselves well to meet any challenges or opportunities their learning styles may present.

In today’s climate of stimulation for not only our economy but our educational system, preparing our students with challenges in reading, writing or mathematics is a daunting task. Again, I understand those fears, but I can’t help but see it as an exciting task. 1 in 7 individuals has a learning disability; this does not mean that 1 in 7 will not be good enough. Schools are challenged to help 7 out of 7 individuals become leaders, communicators, entrepreneurs or teachers. Schools are challenged to help 7 out of 7 individuals develop into successful members of the 21st Century Communities. We are challenged to ensure that all children are “good enough” to succeed.

It is 2:45 pm on that same cold and icy February day in West Michigan. It might be a little less icy and perhaps even less gray than it was seven hours ago, but odds are it’s still fairly cold. Our high school students are long gone . . . off to their other schools for electives or work exploration; Jeff is probably still driving home after finishing his electives here at 2:00. Angela might be getting ready for her part-time job. . . . our younger students are packing up their gear to head home. As I journey through the building, I see smiles and I hear “have a good day”, “see you tomorrow” and “Bye!” echoing through the lobby. I frequently hear laughter, laughter which could be from students, staff or parents as they pick up their children at the end of the day and we all begin to prepare for the next day.

During this journey, I reflect back on the expectations for our students in school and in life. I think about the 1 in 7 individuals with learning disabilities and the creative talents they bring to the world. I think about the changes our staff and students make in our community every day and that to some 1 in 7 might only be a statistic. I realize and reaffirm that if 1 in 7 is a statistic, then I am glad that I get to work with at least 30 of those statistics everyday. They are more than “good enough”; they might just change some piece of my world some day.

Article Published in Outlook, Winter 2009. A publication of LDA of Michigan.