Virtual career center coming to Esky this fall

ESCANABA – Local high school students who function better in an alternative education environment will soon have another option available to them this fall.

Earlier this year, Escanaba Area Public Schools entered into a three-year collaboration agreement with downstate Berrien Springs Public Schools to bring the Escanaba Public Schools Virtual Career Center to the area.

The center, housed at the former Wells School, offers a blended learning opportunity for students through high-quality, virtual high school courses with help provided by highly-qualified and caring teachers in a community college-like environment.

Students are provided laptop computers with wireless Internet capabilities through the career center, but also have a state-of-the-art computer lab at their fingertips. All the start-up costs associated with the new career center were provided by Berrien Springs.

“With the virtual career center, basically the students will do online learning but we don’t just give them a computer and say, ‘Here you go,'” said center director Danielle Wotchko, who will also serve as a teacher at the center. “We set up this first-class computer lab for them staffed with highly-qualified teachers to support them in any way that we can.”

The Escanaba Public Schools Virtual Career Center also strives to offer flexible scheduling and courses, no cost dual enrollment opportunities with Bay College, expanded home-schooling options, and opportunities for shared enrollment at Escanaba High School.

“We’re trying to provide another option for the students that struggle in that traditional setting,” explained Wotchko. “We’re not, in any way, shape or form, trying to take students away from that traditional school or even from Bay Middle College. It’s just another option.”

The center uses the slogan ‘Any time, any place, any pace,’ due to the flexibility available to students and since it is not only available for students who might be struggling in the traditional school environment, but also for more gifted students who want to move at a faster pace. Consistent with the slogan, the center’s computer lab, which functions as a drop-in center for the students, will have flexible day and evening hours certain days of the week.

Enrollment in the center is referral based for Escanaba Area Public School students, but is also open to kids from other local school districts and home-schooled students.

Currently 15 students are enrolled for the upcoming school year, though the center’s goal is to reach 35 students in August. The center is staffed by three teachers, but could grow to more depending on the growth of the program in the future.

Career center students take one class every three weeks, earning a semester credit in that three-week time period, as Wotchko noted it can be difficult for some students to adjust to more than one class being taught at a given time.

The center is also working to set up internships for students with local businesses, and has gotten the word out about the center through the Chamber of Commerce Business After Hours event and through other networking opportunities.

“The really cool thing too is these kids aren’t only going to get a high school diploma,” said Wotchko. “They can gain work skills, real world skills about how to get a job and keep a job, that kind of thing, so with the support from the businesses, it really helps us re-engage these students into our community and just really builds the community in general.”

Though some community members have brought forth concerns about how the partnership would impact per-pupil state funding EAPS receives, Wotchko said the funding does not go straight to Berrien Springs; Escanaba will still receive some of that per-pupil money.

Wotchko credits Escanaba High School Principal Doug Leisenring and EAPS Superintendent Michele Lemire for setting up the partnership as a way to ensure all children in the community have a chance at a good education.

“This has really opened my eyes to different learning styles and that all students learn differently and we need to provide them the options to be successful,” she said.