The lengthy driveway leading to Ashmun School is snow-covered and glistening on a sunny winter morning. Empty fields stretch away on either side, clumps of trees dotting the landscape. It’s a picturesque northern Michigan setting.
But Mother Nature sometimes comes as a shock to inner city youths who are under court order to spend up to a year living and attending school here. Ashmun School sits on the 680-acre campus of Eagle Village, near Evart, a nonprofit corporation offering comprehensive treatment programs for youth and families.
"We had one kid who was afraid of deer, and this was a pretty macho teenager," said Jeff Beckstrom, the school’s special education director. In an agreement now 30 years old, the Mecosta-Osceola Intermediate School District provides the educational program, teachers and support staff at the school, while Eagle Village provides and maintains the building and furnishings.
The students attend Ashmun School while participating in the Village’s Learning Experiential Accelerated Program, or LEAP. LEAP is for youth between the ages of eight and 18 who have a history of delinquency, abuse or neglect. Nearly all have experienced some type of breakdown in the family.
"There’s a lot of low-level crime. Truancy from school. Some breaking and entering. Substance abuse problems," Beckstrom said. Some students are defiant. Some are impulsive.
"There’s a big lack of trust for adults," he said. "You see that manifested as disrespect. They have difficulty bonding."
Beckstrom and his staff have the responsibility of finding out where the new arrivals stand academically — in most cases that’s below grade level — and providing a program to keep their education on track.
The youth come to Eagle Village from all parts of Michigan, Beckstrom said, some placed by a judge, some by the state Department of Human Services and a smaller number by parental request.
In the LEAP program, they live with adult counselors in group homes of up to 12 students. Their day begins with breakfast and morning chores, after which they walk across campus to Ashmun School. The school day runs from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and much of the schedule looks routine — math, reading, art, computer lab. But time is set aside every week to teach social and life management skills.
"A very integral part of the program is to mesh education and treatment," Beckstrom said. Thursday afternoons, for example, are spent in "experiential learning," one of the key components of the Eagle Village program. Those activities typically combine a physical challenge with a skill like communication or cooperation. Beckstrom described one such activity: Two groups of students stand on opposite ends of a six-inch wide beam. The two groups must switch places, passing each other along the beam without stepping off.
"They can stop to develop a plan," Beckstrom said, but it’s more common for them to become angry and argue first, then learn to iron out their differences.
Learning social skills is almost a daily focus in the classroom, agreed teacher Martin DuBois.
"A big component for me is to help teach them how to react to situations. Their emotional impairment gets in the way of learning. Sometimes they don’t take even positive corrective feedback very well. They don’t understand it. All they hear is criticism," he said. Like all Ashmun teachers, DuBois is a certified special education teacher. He and the other teachers meet regularly with the house counselors to discuss student progress in treatment and in school.
Gaining student trust is critical to his work, DuBois said.
"It seems they can sense whether you’re honest. Once you gain their trust, they’ll do anything for you," he said.
Academically, many of the students arrive below grade level in math and language arts, but fall into the average IQ range, Beckstrom said. They may be eligible for special education services, typically in the areas of emotional impairment, learning disability or "otherwise health impaired," a category that includes students with attention deficit disorders.
In an agreement now 30 years old, the Mecosta-Osceola Intermediate School District provides the educational program, teachers and support staff at the school, while Eagle Village provides and maintains the building and furnishings.
A teaching consultant works with newcomers first, giving them assessment tests before placing them in a classroom with students working at approximately the same level.
Students in DuBois’ classroom range in age from 12 to 16, but most are reading somewhere between the first- and fifth-grade levels, he said.
"You have to be flexible," he said. "To me, a good teacher can do that. You have to be very understanding."
"Typically, in a month, we might have a turnover of five kids," Beckstrom said. "The classroom dynamic is always changing. … You just start developing a bond with a kid and then they’re gone."
Knowing that students come and go, teachers tend to present short units of instruction rather than long-term projects, and alternate between group and individual work to accommodate students working at different levels. Class size is usually limited to 12, with one teacher and one aide.
The school also does exit testing on every student who has attended Ashmun School for six months or longer. Beckstrom said that results show that for every month spent at the school, the typical student gains a month and a half toward their appropriate grade level in math and reading.
One reason for those gains is simply that the students are spending more time in the classroom, said DuBois and Gary Bennett, Eagle Village president and chief executive officer. In their home environment, the youths might have skipped school routinely with few consequences.
As one LEAP resident told Bennett recently, "I’ve got structure and I’ve got accountability. Nobody made me go to school before."
Eagle Village keeps track of LEAP participants for a year after they leave the program. If the youth is living in a family-like setting, is in school or gainfully employed, and has had no further contact with the law for a full year, then the organization considers the treatment a success. Last year the success rate across all programs was 75 percent, Bennett said.
DuBois, who has taught at Eagle Village for nine years, said he is happy for students who succeed and understands why some do not.
"You see them make all this progress here," he said, "but some of them don’t make it because they’re back in the same environment that put them here.
"I believe I’m able to have a true impact here," he said. "I’ve had opportunities for other jobs. I just can’t see myself leaving."