Project-based learning, cooperation with school district, sets Isabella County charter school apart
FlexTech High believes that projects and problem-solving will translate to career success
Charter schools are often viewed as competitors to conventional school districts, but as an Isabella County charter school shows, the two can cooperate to serve students.
Michigan has 285 charter schools, according to the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, and one of them is Morey FlexTech, in the village of Shepherd. It shares a campus, the Morey Education Center, with Shepherd Public Schools, which runs Winn Elementary there.
FlexTech, which enrolls roughly 80 students, who range from eighth grade on up, was launched six years ago with help from The Morey Foundation. The foundation, a donor to the Mackinac Center, drew on the FlexTech model of education, which relies on project-based learning and one-on-one advisory relationships between students and school staff.
The Morey Education Center also hosts programs at Mid-Michigan College.
The Morey Foundation saw the FlexTech model in use — there is a FlexTech school in Livingston County and another one in Oakland County — and wanted to apply it locally. What resulted is a unique approach to education, and a unique co-existence between a charter school and a traditional public school.
Lon Morey, president of the foundation, told CapCon that problem-solving experience will help students enter successful careers.
The foundation opened a different charter school in 1997, but the board closed it in 2017. In 2021 the foundation was thinking of razing the building and turning its footprint into green space. But then a representative of Shepherd Public Schools approached the foundation with an idea that led to today’s cooperative effort.
The district had two elementary school buildings, Winn Elementary and Shepherd Elementary.
District officials were concerned about an enrollment imbalance between the two, so they asked The Morey Foundation if it would work with them to reuse its shuttered school building.
Together, they renovated the building, and the district moved Winn Elementary to the Morey property. Winn sits on the campus of Morey FlexTech and is connected to that school by a breezeway.
The two schools — one charter school, one district school — use the same cafeteria for lunch.
Terry Starr, superintendent of Shepherd Public Schools, spoke highly of the relationship when he responded via email to a query from CapCon.
“The relationship we as Shepherd Public Schools have with the Morey Education Center is amazing!” Starr wrote. “The basis of that wonderful relationship though exists because of the specific people involved; Mr. Lon Morey and Mr. Erik Spindler. Mr. Morey and his father were the original creators of the facilities at the Morey Education Center and Mr. Spindler is overseer of the Morey Foundation.”
FlexTech puts an emphasis on project-based learning.
“The charter school’s curriculum is based on real-world learning opportunities and applying them to actual problems,” said Molly Macek, education policy director at the Mackinac Center.
“Their academic program emphasizes project-based learning and community partnerships to make learning meaningful and give students real-world experience,” Macek added. “And their partnership with the Shepherd School District allows for collaboration and learning opportunities that might not be otherwise possible.”
Only a few public school districts in the nation use project-based learning, US News & World Report said in 2021, though several districts in Kent County use it, according to PBL Works, a California nonprofit that trains school employees in the approach. A study of project-based learning conducted by two Michigan university professors in 2017 found that this approach to education can improve student performance, though they caution that more research is needed.
Students at the Morey charter school can earn professional certifications, consistent with the foundation’s vision of giving students post-secondary options that go beyond attending college.
Principal Phil Janis told CapCon that one student earned a certificate in welding by the time he graduated from high school, while others have gained experience elsewhere, such as at a dairy farm or a tire store.
School officials hope to involve the business community in student learning, with some students eventually becoming employees in those businesses.
Lori Palmer is a math teacher at FlexTech who uses hands-on projects and real-world problems to help students better understand math. She gives students an assignment and they tell her how they plan to solve it.
Palmer says that when students develop an idea themselves, they are more invested in it.
Palmer wanted to create a building project with her seniors. They chose to build a dugout for the soccer field. The students visited three dugouts and proposed using a shipping container. They drew their vision on graph paper to scale and created a three-dimensional model based on the plans.
Once they are finished with the model, they will create a presentation to pitch the idea to donors, along with a financial plan for material and labor costs.
Students in Palmer’s class have built catapults, crossbows, and a trebuchet, all based on math concepts. A quilt hangs in the main hallway. It shows angles, patterns and reflections, demonstrating to students they learn in geometry.
Jamie A. Hope is assistant managing editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.