Graduation day looks a bit different at FLEX High School–Cleveland, an alternative charter school run out of a strip mall in Richmond Heights. All day, students walked past a nail salon and an H&R Block to grab packets and graduation caps.
At about 3 p.m., only three hours before the start of the June 21st graduation ceremony, two students, Margot Kakou and Salaya Davis, were pacing the hallway, taking a quick break from working on their final class modules. They needed to complete the work before they could walk across the stage and receive their diplomas.
Thirty minutes later, Davis burst out of a room, her final work just then reviewed by a teacher. She was finished and ready to celebrate, and she wiped away a few tears of joy and relief as her teachers and friends urged her to hold it together for a quick photo. She posed in front of the FLEX High School sign painted on a wall, ringing a handbell and cheering. This is a tradition at the school, marking the moment a student has completed all of their high school requirements—a process that can take anywhere from a few months to several years.
Launched in the fall of 2020, FLEX High School–Cleveland is a public charter school for teens and young adults in Greater Cleveland who want or need a more flexible schedule to complete their high school education. With a motto of “Change Your Story,” the school focuses on helping at-risk students earn a high school diploma. Many students have dropped out of high school to work or were unable to complete traditional schooling for other reasons.
How it works
Students are required to show up in-person for at least four hours a day, two days a week, and check in with staff twice a month, but otherwise they work from home at their own pace.
According to the FLEX Parent and Student Guidebook, students meet one-on-one with their teachers to review their progress, set goals, and discuss obstacles at home or at school. Students also participate in small group instruction or lab classes and can take electives, participate in a club or sport, or utilize wrap-around services such as tutoring, mentoring and counseling. (Those services are all offered on-site.)
The school runs year-round with the exception of a three-week break during the summer following graduation. Students ages 14 to 22 are eligible, though most are at the higher end of that range (the average is 18). They enter with varying levels of high school credit, and some have been out of school for months, said Dan Putrino, spokesperson for FLEX-Cleveland.
Before starting classes, every student takes an entrance exam provided by the state so that the school can determine an individualized plan for them to complete the necessary course work. This is based on the student’s wants and needs, he said.
Students must complete regular state testing requirements, just like any other student in the public school system, he added.
Each student is assigned one advisor, an educator who works with the student to create a plan for completing requirements. The advisor also works with each student to create a career plan.
The model came to Cleveland, about five years after the first FLEX high school was established in Columbus. The Ohio schools are part of a national network of similar charter schools that started in Lancaster, Calif., in 2002 and have since spread to Michigan, South Carolina and Texas.
A different type of charter school
Any high school-aged student can enroll for free, but FLEX makes a point of welcoming students right off the street as they run errands at the strip mall. Many have dropped out of traditional school, Putrino told Signal Cleveland. He said the strip mall location helps bring school to where these young adults might already be.
FLEX is a public charter school, which means it receives state funding on a per-student basis, just like any public school does. Charter schools, however, can also receive philanthropic donations.
While students must be 22 or younger to enroll, they can take classes through 23 if they began their final year of coursework when they were still 22, Putrino said.
The FAQ section on the school’s website says most students come to FLEX after being out of school for more than three months.
Principal Kimberly Sterlekar, who grew up in Richmond Heights and attended Richmond Heights High, said that while FLEX’s goal is to provide alternative access to an education for at-risk students, it also welcomes anyone who wants something different than what a traditional school can provide.
“Some students are here because they need the credit recovery, other students maybe have felt bullied and picked on, or socially [regular school] is a struggle for them. Several students came because they are homeless and need to work during normal school hours. Some kids have children or they’re older…. Other students come because they just like the way that we’re run,” Sterlekar said.
“They know that here they can kind of come in and get their work done and be done,” she said.
Sterlekar told Signal Cleveland that while any Greater Cleveland student is welcome, FLEX has special partnerships with local school districts on Cleveland’s East Side. These schools identify and refer students who are falling behind or who are otherwise struggling. Partner districts and schools include South Euclid/Lyndhurst, Cleveland Heights/University Heights, and Lutheran East High School.
A majority of the 175 students enrolled come from Cleveland’s East Side and Eastern suburbs, she said.
A path for young parents
As part of its mission to help young adults change their own stories, FLEX High provides a number of wraparound services to make students’ lives easier while they focus on finishing their courses. This includes access to resources for students who are parents of young children.
FLEX High School’s “Helping Our Parenting Students Excel,” or H.O.P.E. program, provides workshops on preparing for childbirth, Child CPR/First Aid, and parenting. The school also collects donations of items new parents might need, like diapers, car seats and strollers.
In the school, one classroom is equipped with a baby cradle and childrens’ toys. There are even spaces for older kids to hang out while their parents are completing assignments.
Students can also earn college credit for free at local community colleges through the College Credit Plus program. FLEX also connects students with apprenticeship programs provided through Cuyahoga Community College.
Scrambled studies and pandemic projects
Many of the students graduating from FLEX this year enrolled in the school because the COVID-19 pandemic put a wrench in their plans to earn their diplomas. Signal Cleveland spoke with a few students who shared their stories.
Margaret Kakou, 18
Kakou completed her final module at 4:30 p.m. on graduation day. An hour and a half later and beaming with pride, she walked across the stage in an old church building in Slavic Village where the commencement ceremony was held.
Kakou said she decided FLEX was her best option because her journey through primary and secondary education was never ordinary.
“All throughout middle school, all throughout my first year of high school, I bounced around between different schools,” she said. “I went from middle school to high school in seventh grade, and I ended up not finishing in eighth grade due to sports. I was just kind of all over the place.”
And then the pandemic hit. Getting back on track was proving to be even more difficult for Kakou. Going back to regular school wouldn’t cut it, she said.
That’s when she found FLEX and realized that she could complete the work at her own pace and even graduate at the same time as other students her age.
“I needed something to be able to sit down and get my work done,” she said. “I came to FLEX nine months ago with six credits, and I graduated today, 14 credits later.”
Now that she has finished school, she plans on joining the Air Force. She is currently working her way through the recruitment process and will begin basic training in September.
Deandre Barney, 19
Barney started ninth grade at Jane Addams High School in Cleveland in 2018. Everything was going OK until the pandemic hit. Remote school was difficult for him and he fell behind.
While staying at home, he found another interest: writing.
Barney said during the first year of the pandemic he wrote two books. One was a dark fantasy novel titled “The Dark Mist: Death by Choice.” The other was “Why Fly: An Angel Grounded.” Barney published both his books, copies of which are now available for purchase online and in bookstores.
Jane Addams High School officially closed in 2021, and its students were all sent to East Technical High School. Barney said that the transition to a new school, plus the confusion of the pandemic and his incomplete work, left him with only a few high school credits. He wanted to catch up and get his diploma, but he also wanted to keep writing. The scheduling flexibility allowed him to do that. He also made a point of finding friends at FLEX.
“With FLEX, I did a lot of the school work at home, so the only problem I had was not knowing the students,” he said. “So I got very involved in extracurricular activities to meet them. I became the president of the Anime Club.”
While completing coursework at FLEX, he’s been working hard on a third novel, “Death Voucher.” He said the title should hit the shelves around October.
He plans to keep writing and publishing. He’s got four books in development and hopes to publish a book a year going forward.
Students and parents who want more information about the school can visit flexhighohio.org or call 216-310-9750.