Berrien Springs might not seem like a prime candidate for rapid growth and innovation. It’s not a particularly wealthy district — it receives the minimum per-pupil state aid payment ($6,966 in 2012-2013).[8] Almost 60 percent of its students, based on their household income, qualified for a federally subsidized free or reduced-priced lunch in 2011, above the averages for both Berrien County and the state of Michigan.[9]

Given these modest endowments, the district had to take a somewhat unusual route to growing its student population.

The story starts with alternative education. These programs provide students — primarily high school students — with remedial coursework if they have fallen behind their peers academically. Not long after Bermingham became the superintendent, Berrien Springs administrators saw a market opportunity, noticing that many districts in their county were reducing or eliminating alternative education programs. They responded by investing more in theirs.

It paid off. Enrollment in the Berrien Springs Alternative Education Center more than quadrupled, soaring from 73 in the fall of 2005 to 299 in 2011.[10] More than half of these students are actually residents of other districts.[11]

Berrien Springs Alternative Education Center uses a software-based instructional program. With e2020® software, students have more flexible course schedules and can work at their own pace. Teachers monitor an individual student’s progress in real time and quickly identify remediation needs — even if they aren’t in the same room. Students may complete their work wherever they have Internet access, but teachers and other resources are physically available in a district-run building from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Not everyone in the community was sold on expanding the Alternative Education Center. District leaders countered this by educating local residents about the importance of serving all students, no matter where they live or how much academic support they need.

Ryan Pesce, the district’s middle school principal, says the effort worked: “They [the community] understand what our district’s about, and it’s about helping kids. So they’re willing to accept some lower [standardized test] scores, because they know what [the Alternative Education Center] is doing for those kids. … We have a really good reputation for helping underachieving students.”

Following Berrien Springs’ success, nearby districts expanded their alternative education programs as well. This has led to fewer nonresident students choosing to enroll in the Alternative Education Center, but Bill Bergan, its director and the high school’s head football coach, isn’t worried. He says that once these students start comparing Berrien Springs’ program to the others, “They’re all coming back.”

Having successfully served students in Berrien County, the district decided to expand its impact and created an alternative education program in downtown Battle Creek, more than 80 miles away. The district partners with Summit Pointe, a Battle Creek-based nonprofit mental health care provider, to provide an online learning program and a staffed facility to local high school students, most of whom have dropped out of school or are at risk of dropping out.

Superintendent Bermingham says this program developed out of a “desire we have to make a difference, more than just in Berrien Springs.” He adds, “We have to change the concept of education with these [geographical] boundaries of responsibility.”

The program, referred to as “The Virtual Site,” uses e2020® instructional software, just like the district’s own Alternative Education Center. Students can complete their work at their own pace and on their own time. But the district also provides a staffed facility in the city for students to use from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Remote support is available from Berrien Springs teachers as well. According to Bermingham, more than 275 students enrolled in the district’s Battle Creek program in the 2012-2013 school year.

Bob Kubiack, principal of The Virtual Site, says the program has had a lot of success serving students whose circumstances make it difficult to attend a traditional school. The program’s first graduate, for example, was an 18-year-old mother who completed most of her work online from home late at night, after she had put her baby to bed.

“Obviously, she got the little one to bed, had time to work and really got after it for three or four months,” Kubiack said. “[She] was successful and got her diploma — [the program is] very powerful.”