The Westwood Community School District has contracted with Ombudsman, a private company based in Illinois, to provide an alternative education program to students in the Dearborn area this year, marking Ombudsman’s first foray into the Michigan education market and Westwood’s first venture into contracting for alternative education services.

Westwood Superintendent Ernando F. Minghine said the program gives at-risk students a chance to complete high school, in some cases their last chance.

"We hope it will benefit all students who need something to catch fire. We can’t afford to have a whole generation go by the wayside," Minghine told Michigan Education Report.

Ombudsman is a division of Educational Services of America, a national educational service firm. The company is under contract with the district for one year to provide alternative education programming to students not only from Westwood, but from three other conventional public school districts in the Dearborn area. In an arrangement among the districts, all of the students have enrolled as Westwood students so they can attend the Ombudsman program. The state aid the districts would receive for each student also will flow to Westwood, which will, in turn, use it to pay Ombudsman.

Alternative education students are usually described as those who don’t perform well in a traditional classroom setting. Francis L. McCauley, Westwood’s alternative education administrator, said many of the students come from transient families, moving frequently among school districts without putting down roots in any of them. Some live with relatives, not parents. Many have behavioral issues, social issues and legal issues, like pregnancy and truancy, and few role models.

"We just weren’t able to give those kids the classes they needed" in the district’s own alternative education program, McCauley said. "They had no identity with the school. They were uncomfortable. … When you talk to them one on one, they have goals, but they can’t accomplish them at the moment."

Allison O’Neill, vice president of operations for Ombudsman, said those comments are typical. Students who enroll in Ombudsman programs are, "for whatever reason, disengaged, disenfranchised, not engaged in the learning process."

Ombudsman offers them a different environment, some control over their own schedule, an individual learning plan and a one-on-one relationship with a teacher, she said.

Ombudsman students don’t attend their local school; they go to a learning center where they work their way through seven major areas of study, including core academic subjects like math and science, plus nonacademic subjects like college preparation. In Westwood, students temporarily are meeting in the district’s administration center, but an off-campus site was expected to open by mid-November.

Most of the content is presented through computer programs, but there are some supplemental activities. Students work individually and must achieve 90 percent mastery in a subject before advancing to the next level.

Westwood students are expected to spend four hours a day at the Ombudsman center, either from 7 to 11 a.m., 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. or 3:15 to 7:15 p.m. They also have to participate in community service and work experience, something Westwood asked Ombudsman to add to the program.

"We don’t think that will detract from the program. We think it will enhance it," Minghine said.

The teacher’s role at the learning center is to "build a relationship with those kids and help re-engage them," O’Neill said. Teachers don’t provide day-to-day instruction, but they do "sit down regularly and work with the students." They also play a large role in assessing each student’s skills at the time of enrollment, in helping each student set goals and in developing the off-computer learning activities, she said.

Students like the freedom to choose among morning, afternoon or evening schedules, said Blanche Fraser, a former Michigan public school superintendent who is now executive vice president for sales and marketing for ESA.

"Giving them choices really empowers the students," she said.

Under the terms of its contract with Westwood, Ombudsman provides the building and equipment and develops the curriculum to meet Michigan graduation requirements. The teachers, who hold Michigan certification and have taken training in the Ombudsman program, are school district employees. In some states, Ombudsman hires teachers directly, but Michigan law requires instructional personnel to be district employees. The program currently uses two full- time and two part-time teachers, although McCauley said that could change if enrollment increases.

“We hope it will benefit all students ... We can’t afford to have a whole generation go by the wayside.”

Ernando F. Minghine
Westwood CSD Superintendent

Jill Basherian, president of the Westwood Education Association, said that the teachers hired for the Ombudsman program will not be members of the teachers union. That follows past practice, she said, adding, "Westwood has never had alternative education teachers in our unit."

Asked if she thinks the program will be a benefit to students, she said, "I’m waiting to see. I can’t pass judgment on it."

Ombudsman is required to report to Westwood on student attendance and academic progress, Minghine said. The company’s literature cites an 85 percent success rate, which O’Neill said is defined as a student who has advanced to the next grade level in the Ombudsman program, who has successfully re-entered the regular school environment, or who has graduated.

"It might not work for every child, but it works for a lot," Fraser said.

There is room for 90 high school students in the Westwood program, but Minghine expects first-year enrollment to be closer to 60. At 60 students, the cost of hiring Ombudsman will be about equal to the cost of the districts providing the program themselves, he said. If the number of enrollees grows, then the district could save money by hiring Ombudsman.

"It could be lucrative in that regard, but believe me, that was not my intent," Minghine said. "We’re trying to serve anyone who has a need."

Westwood’s Board of Education approved offering Ombudsman the contract on a 7-0 vote in March. The other participating districts are Crestwood, District 7 and Dearborn Public Schools.

If the program goes well, Minghine said he might approach the Wayne County juvenile justice system about including the program as a site for court referrals.

Fraser, formerly the superintendent of Mount Clemens Community School District and of Mount Morris Consolidated Schools, said ESA has talked with a number of school districts in Michigan about providing services, but declined to say if any have signed contracts. Ombudsman operates 60 centers in 13 states, not including Westwood.