Mancelona, a weathered town at the crossroads of US 131 and M88, is shorthand for what ails the rural corners of northern Michigan—rock-bottom wages, a scarcity of jobs, and all the social problems that come with poverty.
To put numbers to it, Mancelona’s per capita income is $16,344, the region’s lowest. Rates of child abuse, teen pregnancies, and marijuana use by teens in the region rank highest in Antrim County (where Mancelona is located) according to data compiled by The Annie E. Casey Foundation.
But something is afoot in the Mancelona public school district that gives hope and light to this impoverished town and its future generations.
The high school graduation rate of 91 percent last year outpaced Traverse City Central High School, Suttons Bay Senior High, and Northport Public School, according to Michigan Center for Educational Performance data.
Sixty percent of Mancelona seniors enrolled in college last fall, while many others signed up for trade schools to prepare for careers like cosmetology or welding.
There’s no magic here. Amy Burk believes the seed was planted years ago in 1995, when a small group decided to address the problems of student poverty head-on.
They put a wide range of social services into one building—the Mancelona Family Resource Center. And they located the center within easy walking distance of all three of Mancelona’s school buildings.
The idea was to provide a seamless, one-stop service center, said Burk, who became involved in 1998.
“We wanted to have the social services all in place so there wouldn’t be any barriers to learning,” Burk said.
The concept evolved even further. In 2001, a new nonprofit moved in to serve the Mancelona school district—Communities In Schools of Mancelona. The group amped up in-school services to students and began tracking the students’ academic results, said Burk, its executive director.
Kids have free access to mentors, afterschool and summer programs, school supplies, and a high school program that helps students explore and apply for college (called the Ironmen College Network Access or ICAN).
A site coordinator at each school meets one-on-one with kids to connect them to services they need (with a parent’s approval). Sometimes it’s a walk across the street for a dental exam; other times it’s after-school tutoring.
“You can’t learn if you’re coming to school hungry or you don’t have a winter coat or boots, and all those things we can coordinate. We don’t do this alone. We have a lot of partners, Burk said, referring to area nonprofits, agencies and volunteers.
‘WE DON’T HAVE TO WAIT UNTIL THEY’RE FAILING”
Last year’s 91 percent graduation rate is a remarkable climb from the 64 percent rate in 2002—the first full year CIS of Mancelona provided services, Burk said.
Sharee Windish, a Mancelona senior, is on track to becoming part of the success story. She made up her mind a few years ago to study radiology at Northwestern Michigan College.
“My mom always said to me, ‘You’ve gotta go to college. You’ve gotta go to college,’” Windish said.
But several surgeries last spring caused Windish to miss a lot of school. She was failing her classes—a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by Amy Derrer and a team of educators at the high school who work closely together to keep students on track in and out of the classroom.
Derrer, the high school’s CIS site coordinator, runs an after-school program that provides kids with free tutoring, recreational activities, an after-school meal and a bus ride home.
“It helps tremendously. It’s immediate,” said High School Principal Larry Rager. “We don’t have to wait until they’re failing or until we can get a parent in.”
Derrer helped Windish sign up for a semester’s worth of online classes this year. The doubled workload would have been daunting to attempt alone, but Windish could call on Derrer anytime—even during Christmas break—to help with obstacles. She also worked each day after school with Rager, a former math teacher and her high school principal.
“I honestly wouldn’t have known what to do without everybody’s help,” said Windish.
She’s now on track to graduate, but added that online classes haven’t helped everyone who’s fallen behind.
“There are some students that weren’t fully committed; they’d see it as pointless, they’re too lazy to do it, but most kids find it helpful. A lot of kids actually,” she said.
A small group of boys gathered at a table for after-school help—all good friends.
They praised the tutors and the school district itself. Here in Mancelona, “poor kids” aren’t made to feel poor, one said. Everyone is in the same boat.
“There’s no clash of class,” said one senior. Each one of the boys had a plan, from joining the military to attending NMC on scholarship to becoming a teacher.
Derrer, who leads the ICAN program, said she’s created a “college-going culture” at Mancelona.
She ferries high school students to college campuses across the state, including Ferris State University, Adrian College and Michigan State University. She encourages kids to consider four-year colleges, not just community colleges.
“Kids would never, ever set foot on these campuses were it not for Amy,” said high school counselor Laura Powers.
“HEARTS ARE JUST HUGE HERE”
Powers has been at the high school for nearly three decades, and said it’s “absolutely different” now.
“I know one year to prove a point, someone took a yearbook, I looked at the ninth grade class and I put a black scrap of paper over the face of everybody who didn’t finish, and it was very depressing,” Powers said.
The cafeteria walls are adorned with huge swaths of colorful posters announcing who has applied for what college (62 out of 67 students have completed at least one college application). A barometer shows who’s completed the dreaded financial aid applications (FAFSA).
“We’ve had a lot of money pumped into this school district, but there was no afterschool program when I came here in 1986,” Powers said. “I don’t know if everybody looked at students from the perspective that there is something for everyone to do after they leave here. That’s our goal. To match a student’s interest, ability and skills with some way to make a dignified living once they get out of school.”
The hope is to provide more job options than what the surrounding area mostly offers: Shanty Creek Resort, a county-owned nursing home, and casinos.
“Those don’t pay living wages,” she said. Powers also provides career direction, often pointing students to shorter certification programs that offer real hope of earning a living wage with benefits.
“The truth is, I don’t know if a fouryear degree is where it’s at for a lot of kids,” she said.
The Career Tech Center has been a “saving grace” in keeping students in school, she said.
“It saves so many of our kids from the streets, it’s just amazing,” she said. “We had kids who could barely get through classes here, who just shine in that environment.”
The constant college chatter seems to be taking hold.
Suzette Eckelbecker, a senior, said a friend is attending NMC, despite having a baby last year.
“As soon as she was pregnant, she buckled down and she did everything she could.
She was that dedicated,” she said. “In all honesty, the teenagers that have kids are very dedicated to get a job and go to college.”
There’s no question that Mancelona has a long way to go. Test scores remain stubbornly low, and the ACT readiness benchmark score stands at a mere 18.1 percent.
Yet that’s a lot better than 4 percent in 2010, Burk pointed out.
Powers said the school’s problems aren’t solved by any means, but everyone is on the same page to help students graduate and succeed.
“The hearts are just huge here, and people really do have genuine regard for these kids and what happens in their lives, outside of school and inside of school.”