This school isn't a place you end up by accident.
A small propeller plane flight 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, down bumpy gravel roads, to get to the south 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 18-year-old Katie Daugherty thought as she arrived at the Beaver Island Lighthouse School last September.
She was scared, felt sick to her stomach. She hardly talked to anyone.
It is a common response for newbies, as the students who've already 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.
Last chance for a diploma
For many, it is a last chance to get a diploma, to wipe the slate clean and move beyond past mistakes. Some are trying to escape family problems or friends who are a bad influence. Some have been kicked out of home. Others, for whatever reason, simply haven't been able to make it in the usual school setting.
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 had dropped out of school just months from graduation. She'd lost confidence, she says, hidden herself from the world — all but given up, really.
But now there was this place, and this chance.
"I wanted to prove to myself that I was worthy of it," 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 themselves off 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, Daugherty included, would have the chance to graduate in three months' time.
And one of those seven — not necessarily the person they all thought — would be the valedictorian.
This journey far off the beaten path might, indeed, change the course of the lives of the young people who dared to come here.
"But first," says Steve Finch, the school's site supervisor, "they have to trust us."
Cut off from the outside world
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,'" says Taylor Fisher. One of the seniors, he is a shaggy-haired, self-proclaimed hippie who has transformed himself from high school dropout to class president. A jovial sort who seems like he could talk to anyone, even he cried himself to sleep the first night he arrived at the school last February.
Though Michigan's lower peninsula is less than 20 miles east of the island, as the crow flies, 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 sees 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. And 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, especially outside the tourist season.
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," says Ken Roehling. He 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.
'I could help change some lives'
One of the first people they meet is Finch, the site supervisor, a gentle giant of a man who never imagined he'd be here.
A few years back, he was working in sales, traveling the country. Then his own son, who was struggling at school, came here and graduated in 2004. Finch then spent time working with the school's summer construction camps and came to a realization.
"I figured I could end my life having sold a bunch of stuff, or I could help change some lives," he says. So he quit his sales job and took his current position.
When he arrived, the school had more of a lock-down atmosphere. That caused conflict between the students and Finch's tiny staff, which includes four teachers who live in the cabins with the students.
Finch decided to compromise on some things: He gave the students a bit of free time after meals, and told them that while they had to stay on campus, they didn't have to ask to go to the bathroom or to their cabins.
"It's my belief that if we treat them like derelicts, they're going to act like derelicts," says Finch, who immediately noted a shift in student behavior. "It didn't make things perfect, but it eased tension a lot."
So did spelling out the rules. Finch tells students: "You need to be where you need to be. You need to do your schoolwork. You need to respect the staff and each other."
That's the boiled-down version of a system that gives points, up to 15, for various infractions.
Students know from the start that the worst offenses — violence, arson or drug possession — lead to maximum points, immediate dismissal and a talk with the local sheriff's deputy. Other bad deeds are penalized with fewer points, which can be erased if the student does something good, the equivalent of community service.
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, whom the students affectionately call "J-dog," 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.
"Tough love," Noordhoek says, grinning.
There's a routine, and expectations
Getting up early is a particularly difficult adjustment for some of the newbies.
"These girls got to get up!" Daugherty says of the younger students who share her room. All of the young women at the school live in one cabin. There are three of them in each of the two rooms, with a loft above for their teacher/counselor, the only female member of the staff.
It's still the first of four 17-day sessions of the semester that are broken up with four-day visits home. But already, Daugherty is transforming from the quiet wallflower to one of the resident den mothers, much like the other two seniors in her cabin.
She flips on the lights in her room: "Wakey, wakey, eggs and bakey."
The younger girls groan, having been up until 1 a.m. whispering and giggling. But they slowly rise and rub their eyes.
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, even.
Less than two weeks into the semester, Daugherty hadn't expected to feel this comfortable. She didn't think the other seniors, who've all 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 says.
Sure, there are squabbles, over love interests or lack of privacy or any number of things that seem like a big deal at the time.
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," "hippies" and "nerds," here there is little room for pretense.
"If you're trying to be something you're not — boom! — they'll go after that," Finch says. "They see right through it."
'They assume we're bad kids'
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 Schlappi's heart sank when she heard it.
"They assume we're bad kids," she says, "and we're not."
The perception of them as delinquents partly stems from the school's earlier days as a vocational camp in the 1970s and then a school where more students had been in trouble with the law.
Certainly, there's still some of that.
One past semester, Finch and the staff had sheriff's deputies bring a drug dog to search the cabins after they found a student's stash.
"Sorry I had to do that," Finch told everyone, when they didn't find more drugs.
But many students came forward to support him. "Don't apologize," one said. "We came here to get away from that."
That doesn't surprise Aaron Sue Meyer, a youth adviser on the mainland who often refers students to the school. She has noticed that young people who come here now are softer than they used to be. She remembers students from past years punching walls and expressing anger in other inappropriate ways.
"Now, not so much," says Meyer, who is based in Petoskey, with Michigan Works, a state employment agency.
More of them are like Daugherty or Fisher or Schlappi, teens who've somehow gotten lost along the way, but who now dream about being a crime scene detective, a chef or a dental hygienist, as those three do.
May Sandel, another senior, readily acknowledges that she would've become a "hoodlum," as she puts it, had she not found this school. More bubbly than the hardened criminal type, though, she now talks excitedly about being a writer and a photographer.
"I just don't think I had the courage before I came here," Sandel says, "and I have a lot of that now."
She, Fisher and Schlappi have made it clear that they have another goal: to graduate, in a few short weeks, at the top of their tiny class.
It is a friendly competition, but a competition nonetheless. Fisher fantasizes about walking into his old high school in his cap and gown, carrying a big sign: "VALEDICTORIAN."
But not Daugherty. Though doing very well in her classes, she does not mention wanting to compete for the honor. It is not her style to draw attention to herself.
"But she may be our dark horse," Finch says.
'I'm trying to improve myself'
No matter what their academic level, though, most students show up for class eager to participate. They discuss Greek mythology. Some catch up on basic skills they've missed. Others work to solve complicated math and chemistry problems.
They write essays and discuss government policies.
"Why is the government required to pay for a school like this because you made bad choices?" teacher Noordhoek asks during one class debate.
"Because," responds 17-year-old Micah Braden, "I'm trying to improve myself."
With the tone set by the seniors, it also is clear that students don't want to let each other down. And when they do, they often own up to it.
At one group meeting, Braden tearfully apologized for getting in trouble earlier in the semester. He and a few other male students were caught "huffing," or inhaling men's body spray to get high.
"Thank you for giving me a chance to learn from my mistake," he said, dropping his head humbly as the staff and his classmates sat around him quietly, some of them nodding.
He was embarrassed, he later said — and felt like he'd belittled the place that he has grown to love so much.
"Without that school and the people in it, I would be dropped out and on the fast track to prison," he said. Instead, he plans to return to the school when the next semester begins in February and will run for class president.
Those are the stories that keep the staff coming back, even if it means spending weeks away from their families and having little time to themselves when they're on the island with the students.
But even the successes don't always soothe the sting when a student leaves.
This past semester, one student left after he got in a fight with his girlfriend and refused to give up the cell phone he used to call her. Another was angry at his parents and convinced that they only wanted him at the school so they could claim him for public assistance.
Two others left because they said they wanted more freedom.
"Does your mom know you're coming home?" Sandel asked one of the latter two.
"Nope," the young woman said, as she packed her sleeping bag and other belongings.
"Will she be mad?" Sandel asked.
"I don't care," she said, noting that she wasn't going home, anyway. Instead, she planned to sleep under a tarp behind a friend's house. The young woman's mother eventually called, begging the school staff to persuade her daughter to stay, but they had no power to force the issue.
Such departures leave staff members feeling as if they've failed somehow.
"I hate it — but at this point, it's something I can't control," Finch said.
By December, and the day before graduation, the campus at the Beaver Island Lighthouse School is a snowy wonderland — and the students a jumble of conflicting emotions.
They are excited, but also nervous and a little crabby.
"I almost don't want to graduate. It's like home here," Sandel says as she stands on a deck near her cabin overlooking the frigid, stirred-up waves of Lake Michigan. Early the next morning, she and the staff and the rest of the students head onto those waters, on a ferry bound for Charlevoix, Mich. There, family and friends meet them and head to a graduation ceremony at the local VFW Hall.
Daugherty's mom is among them. Daugherty had hoped more family would come — hoped past family strife wouldn't cast a shadow on her big moment — but she tries not to think about it.
As the seniors file into the ceremony in their caps and gowns, some carry big boxes of tissues.
There is a saying at the school when people start getting teary: Wiping their eyes, students say, "The room is getting kind of dusty." That's been happening a lot the past few days.
Schlappi and Fisher give emotional speeches.
"The relationships we've built here feel as though they've lasted a lifetime," Fisher says, his face red and voice quivering, "as if these people were more of a family than friends."
And finally, the announcement for valedictorian comes.
Finch says it was the closest race for the honor since he's been at the school. The young women in the class were in the top three spots. But it was Daugherty, the new senior, who earned the best grades throughout the semester.
The dark horse — the young woman who wanted to accomplish something very big — has done it, though she is too shy to stand in front of everyone to give a speech.
When she is awarded the $800 scholarship for academic achievement, she feels sick to her stomach again, just as she did when she first arrived on the island. Now 19 and headed to community college, she may well feel those pangs as she starts her new classes this winter.
That's how it works, though. The place that took these students out of their element — the place on a faraway island that they didn't necessarily want to like — became a refuge where they could prepare for the next step.
Now they will forge their way back into "America," diploma in hand.