Don’t fit in school? There’s a different WAY

Jessica Cooper was so turned off by all the drugs and the social drama at her Livingston County high school that she finally dropped out during her junior year.

“You had to be popular, or in a specific group,” she explained. “It just made me want to be alone.”

Soon after she enrolled in the area’s alternative high school, she learned about yet another option: The WAY (Widening Advancements for Youth) Program would let her set her own schedule and work mostly from a computer at home.

Cooper, 19, amazed even herself by how quickly she progressed. On Aug. 1, she received her high school diploma.

“I recommend WAY to everybody,” said the Pinckney resident. “If you don’t like high school -- if you can’t do high school -- try to get in.”

Located at 10 sites serving about 1,300 students from more than 100 school districts throughout the state, the WAY Program lets students work both at learning labs and online from home computers, with personalized support from a team of educators.

According to WAY Regional Executive Bethany Rayl, the typical WAY student has been disengaged from the traditional high school for any number of reasons. Some have health concerns, or jobs that preclude attending a traditional day school. Some have at-risk factors, and have gotten behind in school because of attendance issues.

And some are gifted and talented and feel the traditional school doesn’t fit them anymore.

Rayl said a big advantage of the online component is that it “shatters the walls of time and space.”

“I’ve been in public education for about 24 years now, and, as a classroom teacher, you get into a situation where you’re just getting into a great activity with young people and the time’s up,” she said. “In the WAY Program, a young person can deeply engage in a project and see it through to completion.”

WAY is entirely project-based, and standards-focused, so the students -- who are called “researchers” -- co-design projects with content area experts based on their interests. Each student is paired with a mentor, team leaders and content experts.

Team leader Chris Dotson likes the fact that WAY works with students who otherwise have found no success in school.

“The difference is that in a traditional school, the student is basically being told what they should do and the teacher is leading the class,” said Dotson. “That has a lot of benefits to it. In this program, though, the student -- or researcher -- is actually the one in charge of how they’re learning. And we’re the ones guiding them along. So they have a lot more say in how they learn it, so it’s much more applicable to their lives.”

When high school dropouts are asked why they didn’t like school, the common answer is: “It doesn’t relate to my life; there’s no point to it, or benefit from it,” Dotson said.

“WAY creates relevance through the projects that relate to their lives while learning about such things as public policy, math, science, English, and social studies.”

One student’s recent project, for instance, was texting while driving, which taught public policy, law, technology and media and language arts skills.

Every WAY student is graded according to standards set by the Michigan Merit Curriculum, so they’re learning the same material they would in the traditional school, but in a different way.

WAY reports a retention rate of 93 percent. Upon completion of the standards-based curriculum, students receive a high school diploma, not a G.E.D.

WAY started as a pilot program in 2008 after two Michigan educators, Glen Taylor and Beth Baker, modeled it after England’s successful Notschool program.

In 2009, Taylor and Baker formed the nonprofit WAY, and it has grown from there. Local and intermediate school districts pay WAY a fee for service, per student, per year. WAY operates  year-round and programs are located in Livingston, Muskegon, Oakland and Washtenaw counties and communities stretching from Watervliet and Niles in the southwest to Hale in the northeast.

Baker said that encouraging aspirations is only the first half of a crucial equation that includes empowering and equipping students with the skills and knowledge to achieve them. Through a variety of individualized learning programs, she said, WAY students realize it’s not how they choose to progress that matters, but the progression itself.

“We are not here to curb anyone’s aim,” she said. “We’re here to cultivate it. Imagination is an incredibly powerful thing, but actualization can be even more powerful.”

Jessica Cooper would agree.

“It was cool to have people actually help me along the way, and it was nice to be able to work at my own pace,” Cooper said. “I feel I accomplished something for myself for once.”

Jo Collins Mathis is a veteran journalist who has written for numerous publications in Washtenaw and Wayne counties. She was an award-winning reporter and columnist with the Ann Arbor News for 15 years, and a features page editor and columnist at the Ypsilanti Press.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Thu, 08/09/2012 - 9:37am
While there is certainly an exciting place for cyberschools for a small number of students, I would have appreciated more information in this article about WAY. Is it for profit or nonprofit? Where is its true headquarters? Is it truly based in Michigan or is the corporate headquarters in another state? As we found with Michigan Virtuall Academy, many of these cyber schools are for profit and based out of state so we are channeling State education money to private, out of state corporations. This is wrong. If WAY is a nonprofit truly based in Michigan, I applaud their efforts and wish them the best!
Bethany Rayl
Thu, 08/09/2012 - 2:01pm
Hi David, WAY is a nonprofit and our corporate headquarters are in Belleville, Michigan. For more information about us please visit our website at or give us a call at 313-444-9292. Bethany Rayl, Regional Executive
Chuck Fellows
Thu, 08/09/2012 - 11:04am
To answer your questions click on the link in the article or go to The form and structure of an enterprise is immaterial as long as the stated goal, students learning, is achieved. Only the student can demonstrate that.
Thu, 08/09/2012 - 11:24am
The link in the article does not give adequate information. And it DOES matter where our public education money is being spent. Do we want our tax dollars to go for the profit out of state corporations? I don't think so. Public schools struggle to provide service with the current foundation grant. Many of the for profit charter schools are pocketing up to 25% as profit! How do they do that? By shortchanging students and paying their staff near poverty level wages. If WAY is different, more power to them. But we need to know all the details.
Elizabeth W Bauer
Thu, 08/09/2012 - 11:56am
WAY Program is a non-profit 501(c)(3) corporation incorporated in Michigan. Its main office is located at 369 Main Street, Belleville, MI 48111. WAY Program originated in the Westwood School District as the brain child of Beth Baker, then at Wayne RESA and Glen Taylor, Westwood Principal. In 2009, Ms. Baker and Mr. Taylor incorporated WAY Program (Widening Advancements for Youth) as a NPO and have since entered into contracts with a number of traditional districts and Intermediate School Districts to make the program available to students on a larger scale. As they say at WAY, students (researchers) do not have to be ready for WAY. WAY gets ready for the researcher. Instruction is standards-based, project-oriented, personalized to build on the youth's abilities and interests. Credit is given when competency is demostrated. The program operates 24/7 365 days a year. Close and frequent connection between mentor and researcher is essential. The program is highly accountable.It creates partnerships with community organizations wherever it is in operation. I have been its "fan" since I observed it operating in the Westwood District during the time I served on the Michgian State Board of Education. In fact, so much of a fan that I now serve as President of the Board of Directors of W-A-Y Academy, a charter school in southwest Detroit (8701 W. Vernor, Detroit, MI 48209), We are authorized by Lake Superior State University. Shannon Smith is head of school. Learn more about the W-A-Y Academy by going to We are using the charter mechanism to bring this unique and highly effective high school program to the youth of metropolitan Detroit. Once again, partnerships are key and many are developed and more developing among the enterprises in southwest Detroit. It is very exciting and I welcome inquiries.
Thu, 08/09/2012 - 12:36pm
Elizabeth W Bauer
Thu, 08/09/2012 - 5:59pm
The student researcher is named Jessica Cooper. She lives in Livingston County.
Mon, 08/13/2012 - 9:49am
Ms. Bauer - Thank you for the details of the WAY program. As you describe the program, its structure and development, I would support it as well. I am glad it is an in-state program and that it is organized as a non-profit. Too many charter schools, both virtual and "brick and mortar" are run by companines seeking to reap profits off our educational system, draining much needed dollars out of the system. Many districts in the state have written off alternative school programs as unsustainable for a variety of reasons. The WAY proposal sounds lilke a viable alternative.
Thu, 08/23/2012 - 9:04am
I appreciate the questions for further details and clarification from David and the efforts by Ms. Bauer to explain the WAY program. The civilize exchange between the two of you enabled all of us to gain greater understanding of this program that appears to have enormous potential.
Thu, 01/09/2014 - 4:21pm
I'm very late to the party here, and while I do favor all efforts to reach and educate children struggling in traditional schools, I would question this group closely. All 501(c)3 organizations have to file Form 990s with the IRS describing their activities. In the most recent one for the WAY program that I found (, the expenses seem skewed. They reported $3,292,340 in expenses. On Part IX, they report a total of $1,994,912 in total compensation (lines 6,7,and 9 combined). In part II of schedule J, they report compensation to 11 directors/officers/trustees/etc of $1,230,476. These people are all listed earlier as directors. That means that 61.7% of their total compensation went to people that are listed as directors, not instructors or staff What is missing here? Anything? It looks to me like an absurd amount of the spending here goes to the directors and not the staff. Furthermore, the two lead executives are listed as having received $250,003 and $230,905 in total compensation, and together those two own 85% of a company that received $440,550 in contracts from WAY during that year. Unless I'm missing something (and please correct me if I am), this organization seems to be pushing a TON of money to its executives - way more than a traditional school would give to its leadership - and staff is likely getting very little.