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The Reconnecting Disconnected Youth Project

It takes tenacious hope to believe in students who have dropped out of standard school programs. Heidi Cate of Lighthouse Academy in Grand Rapids discusses her organization’s Reconnecting Disconnected Youth Project and her staff’s ferocious faith in their students. 
Michigan Nightlight: In your view, what makes your program innovative, effective, or remarkable?
Lighthouse Academy Superintendent Heidi Cate: We have, since our opening in 2005, a very successful rate of graduations. Many of our students had dropped out of high school. Many were very troubled when they came to us, in addition to being academically behind. We take a very whole approach to education, which includes life skills, job skills, in addition to academic skills. We also have a much more intensive ratio of adult staff to students, in order to motivate our students to get into a less restrictive environment. I also think the culture of our school is very much a family culture. It’s structured with a lot of rules and consequences, but I think our students get a lot of nurturing from our teachers as well.
We don’t shy away from discussing hard things like character building and values.

What was the best lesson learned in the past year?
We are in the mode of expanding to another site beyond our main campus. We wanted to be able to serve other kids that are a little less troubled with a second charter school. We learned that we need to make sure that the entire culture and climate from the first site is passed on into another expansion. It’s something we’ve been learning. We need to replicate the success from the other site, without growing too large and losing the effectiveness of the original campus.
What was the hardest lesson learned in the past year?
Definitely to do our jobs at a rate that we can do it well. There’s always the potential to expand and grow, but we need to do it at a slow and steady rate so we can keep up the quality. It’s easy to hear that there are 2,000 plus students in Michigan that need the services Lighthouse provides, but there’s just no way we can do that right now. We just need to focus on Kent County and do it in a way that we can do it well instead of doing it in a way that’s too big but falls apart.
What really differentiates this program?
For me, it has a lot to do with our whole-child approach. We don’t shy away from discussing hard things like character building and values. Not that we think we have it all figured out, but we want to bring these things up. It’s extremely important to understand that without those discussions, you can have a very well educated person with a law degree, but they could
We need a staff that can believe in these students before they believe in themselves. It goes beyond the right training or the right certification.
use it to commit crimes – I understand that’s an extreme example, but that’s why focusing on character is so important.
What are the keys to success for your program?
Having a properly skilled staff with the right training. We need the people that can see beyond the way the kids show up and have a tenacious hope for them. Many of the students who show up have a severe cynicism and a lack of self-confidence. We need a staff that can believe in these students before they believe in themselves. It goes beyond the right training or the right certification.
What are the people in your program most inspired by?
Come to any one of our graduations, and you’ll see that’s what keeps us going. Seeing the way these kids turn around energizes us like you wouldn’t believe. 

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