Superintendent provides hope for struggling kids

"When traditional schools don't serve these students, we can"

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Superintendent Ryan Donlan (left) explains during a radio interview how a committed staff of just under 10 teachers and support staff makes the difference for the 100 students served by his charter school for "at-risk" children.

Ryan Donlan is passionate about his job.

And that passion is the driving force behind Bay-Arenac Community High School, a charter school for "at-risk" students.

Superintendent Donlan serves as a teacher, mentor, friend, and administrator to approximately 100 students at Bay-Arenac, one of the few schools in the state chartered by an intermediate school district.

The school caters to 9th through 12th graders who have struggled in the traditional public education setting. Many of Bay-Arenac's students have been suspended or expelled from other schools, faced problems with the law, or considered dropping out of school altogether. Bay-Arenac provides a "second chance" for these students to graduate and offers work experience, internships, community service programs, and personal development classes.

Donlan is the perfect person for the job. Beginning college as a criminal justice major, he transferred to teaching in his first semester. Throughout college, he participated in numerous extracurricular activities including teaching classes to jail inmates, serving as a tutor to college students, writing for a local paper, and even performing in a rock band.

Since graduating in the early 1990s and obtaining a master's degree, Donlan has been a teacher, athletic director, principal, and special/alternative education administrator in schools around the state. He has seen first hand the needs and struggles of "at-risk" students, and his dedication to teaching and serving these students has grown through the years.

Donlan also is an avid supporter of school choice and says the choice movement has provided options for students who are not being served by traditional public schools.

"The whole beauty of the choice movement is, when traditional schools don't serve these students, we can," Donlan says.

Donlan calls his staff—of just under 10 teachers and support staff—"the most compassionate and wonderful people you'll ever meet."

Donlan admits his students have "rough" lives outside of school, so the school strives to maintain a supportive, family-like atmosphere. Students attend conflict resolution classes and must adhere to strict attendance and zero-tolerance violence policies to encourage responsibility and maintain school safety.

Bay-Arenac also provides ample opportunities for students to get involved and contribute to the "family" by encouraging group community service projects, promoting photography and art projects to decorate the school, and allowing students to provide input to the school's board of directors.

Donlan's positive outlook and the commitment of his staff have made Bay-Arenac an impressive operation. Students are well behaved, eager to contribute and serve others, and very proud of their accomplishments. They are open in sharing their struggles and often-tragic stories, but quick to say the school is the best thing that has happened to them.

When problems arise between students or students and staff, they are quickly resolved through conflict management meetings and a supportive, but disciplined, student body. Donlan says the students are committed to maintaining high standards and have asked that attendance policies and expectations remain high. A student appeals board helps oversee attendance infractions, and Donlan has been impressed with the board's pride in the school.

One student serving on the appeals board, in responding to a student who had numerous attendance policy infractions and asked for a "second chance," said, "What do you mean a second chance? This school is your second chance."

Donlan recounts this story with a slightly amused grin, saying this is a typical response from the students. They hold each other accountable and encourage the utmost respect for the school rules and staff.

The dedication of the students to the school is an amazing testament to Donlan's vision. Many of Bay-Arenac's students not only graduate, but go on to college and the work world. Two of the students drive over an hour to attend the school every day. Others balance full-time jobs while still maintaining perfect attendance. The pride they have for the school is obvious in the photos of students and staff that adorn the walls, and their many stories of tragedy-turned-triumph.

Donlan points out that the success of his school lies in the staff's focus and motto: "It's not about us. It's about the students. We realize we are only as good as our next day's work."