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
"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
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
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
"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,"
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
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
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.