Accounting? Marine biology? Waterford school gives students unique options

Maya Lafnear, a senior at Our Lady of the Lakes High School in Waterford, is pictured with her mother, Kelly Lafnear, a 1990 graduate of the school. Maya, who plans to pursue pediatric oncology nursing in college, is excited to try out a variety of different educational options this fall. (Photos by Michael Stechschulte | Detroit Catholic)

Our Lady of the Lakes experiments with ‘exploding the schedule’ to allow teens freedom to pursue interests beyond core subjects

WATERFORD — Maya Lafnear wants to be a nurse in a pediatric oncology clinic someday, so she can help children who have cancer.

Her classes at Our Lady of the Lakes High School in Waterford are helping her prepare for that path, especially her anatomy and physiology classes. She says her teachers have been great, answering questions and going out of their way to help her understand and master the material.

“It’s a smaller class size, so you really get that one-on-one time with teachers,” Maya told Detroit Catholic. “They want you to succeed. They want to see you happy and successful.”

Maya, a senior, wants to focus on her math and science classes next year — with maybe a few specialized classes and club opportunities sprinkled in.

It’s a goal the school shares.

That’s why, starting this fall, Our Lady of the Lakes will be adopting a new educational model — one that emphasizes and empowers students to take control of their own education by creating choices and options within the traditional school day.

The plan, called “Faith in the Future – Catholic High School Reimagined,” seeks to break up the traditional school day into smaller, more customizable chunks so students can spend time learning and experiencing subjects that interest them in an effort to better prepare them for college and the real world, said Jared Kullman, assistant principal at Our Lady of the Lakes.

“We really want to create options for our kids,” Kullman said. “We know we can do a good job of preparing our kids for college and helping them walk in faith. But there are other things we can do to help kids find their passions, to help them get ready for when they leave here.”

Kullman said the idea is to offer students a flexible daily schedule that’s complete with core classes such as religion, math, science and history, but also create space for personal interests and specialized electives and club activities throughout the day.

“We’ve broken up our day from a seven-period day into a 15-period day,” Kullman said. “We’ve kind of exploded the schedule in a way where we’re able to expand what we’re offering.”

By breaking up the schedule into smaller chunks — which can be combined for more intensive AP classes or core subjects — the school is able to create time for students to pursue other interests: for example, a marine biology class or personal finance.

“What this allows is so many more opportunities for students to fit different things in their schedule,” said Terry Zaleski, a 16-year math and economics teacher at the school. “If you want to take a bunch of AP classes, you’ll have time in the schedule to do that. If you’d prefer to try a bunch of different things and take nine classes, you can do that.”

Certain electives, like an accounting class Zaleski plans to teach, will be scheduled for smaller periods of time, which frees up teachers who won’t be expected to prepare lesson plans for a full hourlong course.

“I love it, because it allows me to slowly introduce the material without having to fill 53 minutes every day when students are learning something completely new,” Zaleski said. “From a teacher’s point of view, it’s easier to have that type of class meet for a shorter period of time.”

Kullman said the school solicited input from teachers, parents and students on the new arrangement, who expressed interest in the more flexible scheduling.

“We've had students ask, could I try out animation? Could I try out home construction? Could I explore marine biology or laboratory sciences?” Kullman said. “So then we went back to our teachers and said, ‘OK, what can you do with this information?’ They've been able to create some pretty interesting ideas for our students.”

In addition to semester-long elective classes, the school will also introduce short-term “experiences,” which will run for a few weeks and allow students to try different things, as well as allowing space for student clubs and activities to meet throughout the day.

Such “experiences” might include gardening activities or on-site internships, such as working with Our Lady of the Lakes elementary school kids, Kullman said.

“The idea is that kids will have some options during the day to try out some different things,” Kullman said. “There are a lot of areas, depending on a student’s interest.”

For instance, Maya said she’s interested in exploring a Bible study group with other students — perhaps something akin to Fr. Mike Schmitz’s “Bible in a Year” project.

Rather than an “after-school” Bible study, Maya said, it might be a “during-school” Bible study.

“I love that we have the opportunity to start our own groups so we can get other kids involved,” said Maya, who also plays softball. “Another group someone wanted to start was a recycling club. It’s just nice because you get to take part of your day and get involved in something you care about.”

Maya’s mother, Kelly, who graduated from Our Lady of the Lakes in 1990, said she’s excited to see her daughter take the reins of her own education.

“I think it’s awesome that they’re getting students prepared in this way for quote-unquote ‘adulting,’” Kelly Lafnear said. “It’s just such a great thing for them to start to do.”

Students will be eligible to begin pursuing their interests starting their sophomore year, and additional emphasis will be placed upon college-readiness, Kullman said, including a senior capstone project in which students will be expected to find and solve a real-world problem.

“When a student walks out of here at graduation, we want them to be able to say they had an experience at Our Lady of the Lakes that no one else has had,” Kullman said. “And when they tell others about it, they’re going to wish they had it, too.”