- Associated Press - Sunday, January 30, 2011

BEAVER ISLAND, Mich. | This school isn’t a place where you end up by accident.

A flight on a small propeller plane or a two-hour ferry ride into the northern reaches of Lake Michigan gets you as far as St. James, the northern hub of Beaver Island. But it takes another half-hour by car to get to the southern tip of the island and the small cluster of classroom buildings and log cabins, shadowed by the historic lighthouse for which this secluded alternative high school is named.

“What the hell have I gotten myself into?” That’s exactly what Katie Daugherty, 18, thought as she arrived at the Beaver Island Lighthouse School in September.

It is a common response for newbies, as the students who have been at the school a semester or two call the newcomers. All of them are here because they’ve either dropped out of traditional high school or are at risk of doing so.

This is, however, no boot camp, no forced existence. These students come to the school by choice, and they decide whether to stay.

For many, it is a last chance to get a diploma, to wipe the slate clean and move beyond mistakes. Some are trying to escape family problems or friends who are bad influences. Some have been kicked out of home. Others simply haven’t been able to make it in the usual school setting.

Miss Daugherty was living with friends, shifting from place to place, when a youth counselor came across her case. Torn up by her parents’ divorce and her father’s remarriage, she dropped out of school just months from graduation. She had all but given up, she said.

But now there was this place, and this chance.

“I wanted to prove to myself that I was worthy of it,” Miss Daugherty said, “that I could accomplish something very big.”

Something very big in a very small place, where the surroundings and close living quarters in those log cabins make it impossible for just about anyone to close off themselves for too long. That’s the hope, anyway.

This semester, like any other, there would be dramas and disappointments, but triumphs, too.

Four of the 25 students wouldn’t make it at the school. Seven of the remaining 21, Miss Daugherty included, would have the chance to graduate in three months’ time.

This journey might, indeed, change the course of the lives of the young people who dared to come here.

“But first,” said Steve Finch, the school’s site supervisor, “they have to trust us.”

The first step toward gaining that trust is overcoming the shock of being cut off from the outside world. Until they travel to the island, most of these students have never been on a plane or a ferry. Nor have most been this far from home, or this isolated.

“Out here, we call the mainland ‘America,’” said Taylor Fisher, a senior who transformed himself from high school dropout to class president.

Though Michigan’s Lower Peninsula is less than 20 miles east of the island, it feels much farther. The students aren’t allowed to have cell phones, and even if they did, most don’t work here anyway. So they have to use a community land line to make occasional calls home. They have computer time and access to social networking sites and e-mail.

But with a schedule that gets them up at 7 a.m. or earlier most days, and in class six days a week into the evening, there isn’t much time for that.

Nor is there room for typical student excuses. It’s impossible, for instance, to say they missed a bus or couldn’t find a way to school; classrooms are a short walk from the student cabins. Even if they wanted to skip, there’s nowhere to go, except for a long hike through dense hardwood forests, or along miles of dunes and beaches that are usually more populated by deer than people.

A few students can’t get used to the setup and start packing. They don’t like the rules, they say — or maybe it’s simply that self-sabotage is a habit too ingrained to overcome.

“We traditionally lose one student in the first 24 hours,” said Ken Roehling, who heads the Lighthouse School from Traverse City, Mich., home of one of two mainland school districts that oversee the place. Students, though, come from districts all over the state’s rural Northwest Lower Peninsula.

The idea is to allow students to take responsibility and learn new ways to handle themselves. When possible, the staff also uses a little humor to convey those lessons.

Teacher Justin Noordhoek doesn’t hesitate to blast a loud air horn to get the young men in his cabin out of bed in the morning.

Students who leave backpacks or other belongings in a classroom or the dining hall have to dance to get them back.

There is routine here. There are expectations. Even if some gripe about it a little, it’s pretty clear that most of them like it — thrive on it.

Less than two weeks into the semester, Miss Daugherty didn’t think the other seniors, all of whom have been here longer, would take her in. Then they invited her to sit at their table during meals.

“I found out that a lot of the kids here are in the same boat as me,” she said.

Sure, there are squabbles. But there’s also an acceptance here that a lot of these students haven’t been able to find at their old schools. Even if they do categorize themselves with lighthearted labels such as “rednecks” and “nerds,” there is little room for pretense.

“If you’re trying to be something you’re not — boom — they’ll go after that,” Mr. Finch said. “They see right through it.”

Acceptance from the island community, which has a year-round population of about 650, is also important to the students, though they’re not always sure they get it.

Senior Michelle Schlappi still remembers the comment one resident made as students served plates of spaghetti at a dinner they hosted at an island township hall: “Oh look,” the islander said. “They let all the students out of their shackles.”

It was a joke to him, no doubt, but Miss Schlappi’s heart sank when she heard it.

“They assume we’re bad kids,” she said, “and we’re not.”

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