Washtenaw United: ACCE High School creates more welcoming learning environment for Ypsilanti’s young people




Lauren Fardig-Diop is an educator and restorative practitioner at A.C.C.E. Alternative High School in Ypsilanti, Michigan, who formerly taught in NYC public schools for 10 years. She has also trained educators to use restorative practices through Eastern Michigan University, the WISD, the Dispute Resolution Center and the Metro Detroit Restorative Justice Network. An alumnus of the University of Michigan’s Secondary MAC program, she has long considered herself an antiracist and abolitionist educator, using the English classroom and restorative processes as platforms for social change. Her work has been featured in Humans of Restorative Justice, The Atlantic, The New York Times and on the PBS News Hour. She is also the 2022 LaFontaine Teacher of the Year for Washtenaw County and a 2022 Writer of Ypsilanti.


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David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And today, we want to talk about education as a means to greater diversity, equity and inclusion in our community and beyond. I’m David Fair, and welcome to this week’s edition of Washtenaw United. What and how students are taught makes a difference. It’s that idea at the center of what’s happening at Ypsilanti’s ACCE High School. ACCE stands for Achieving College and Career Education. It is a limited number of students who are referred to this program. Our guest today is Lauren Fardig-Diop, and she serves as culture and climate coach at ACCE High School. And thank you for making time for us during a school day.

Lauren Fardig-Diop: Thank you so much for having me. It’s really great to be here.

David Fair: Who are the kids from the community that get referred to ACCE High School?

Lauren Fardig-Diop: Well, we have a diverse group that comes to us for different reasons, and some folks come to us because they are credit deficient, which means that they are not on grade level in terms of the credits that they have acquired in their coursework. Some other folks come to us because they want a smaller classroom environment or need to have more support from the school staff or the school day teachers. And we do have a smaller environment that is more project-based and place-based. And so, our environment, even though it’s not very widely known about, is something that’s kind of what we consider ourselves the hidden gem of Ypsilanti because we are able to provide a really small and family-like environment for our young people.

David Fair: Would you consider a majority of the students at-risk?

Lauren Fardig-Diop: I don’t. I kind of move away from the term at-risk because I think that the connotation of that tends to be a negative connotation. I would say that our students need a lot of support and that our students are brilliant and have not yet been able to connect with their brilliance or find things that they’re passionate about with in school.

David Fair: How would you describe the mission for the students who are attending ACCE?

Lauren Fardig-Diop: Well, I think that our mission is to create a family environment, so that we can support our young people and then move them toward a high-quality education that’s rooted in what they’re interested in. One of the things that we’re able to do and such in kind of our innovative program is to highly customize what our students need and how to approach that. We really take it on a case-by-case basis in terms of what a young person needs. And that might be a mixture of, you know, we have an in-person program. We also have an online program. And kind of the supports that they get are based on what they need. And so, it allows us to be able to really get to know our young people very, very well, get to know their families very well, and to help put them on the trajectories toward success that we know that they’re capable of.

David Fair: How is that different than what the Ypsilanti Community Schools’ overall mission is? And how is that different from what an IEP, or Individualized Education Plan, is in the traditional high school?

Lauren Fardig-Diop: Sure. So, I think that the mission is the same across the main campus and our alternative kind of individualized location, right? What’s different is that our young people have not necessarily been successful in a traditional model of school. And so, we try to kind of change the approach to be more project-based, to be more hands-on, to try to support our young people in kind of some of the social and emotional needs that they may have. And our high school does an incredible job of doing a kind of putting SEL throughout the curriculum as well. So, it’s just kind of a smaller learning environment to be able to focus on more individualized student needs. And in terms of IEP’s, a lot of our students do have IEPs at the main campus as well. This is basically kind of considering all of our students’ needs, not just our students who have IEP’s or 504 plans, in terms of the way that we build their schedule and the way that we build the support around them. So, it’s similar to an IEP, but it’s not a kind of a a state-recognized, individual learning plan. It’s just something that we use locally here.

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and our Washtenaw United conversation with ACCE High School culture and climate coach Lauren Fardig-Diop continues. I’m curious, Lauren. What exactly is the function of a culture and climate coach?

Lauren Fardig-Diop: It’s a great question, and I think that that looks differently for each of us who are in this role. So, this is something that each building in Ypsilanti Community Schools has. Really, my role here at ACCE is to promote restorative practices and to use restorative practices on a daily basis with our staff, with our young people, and to, eventually, train our young people into how to use restorative practices. And so, that can look like circle work. We do community building circles every day within the school. We also do circles inside of classrooms, and it can also look like mediation and trying to respond to conflicts in a different way that’s not punitive and trying to really get at the root of what an issue is between two students or between a staff member and a student. And so, my day looks different depending on the day and depending on what’s going on. It also looks like going into classrooms to support classroom teachers with resources that they may need to build better relationships with our young people.

David Fair: We’re talking about some of the ways that it operates within the walls of the building. But we live in a country outside of those walls where there are ongoing efforts to ban books, to prevent schools and teachers from providing accurate Black history and American history lessons, a society where the levels of violence against members of the LGBTQ plus community is far higher than against other segments of the population.

Lauren Fardig-Diop: Right.

David Fair: So, how do you go about educating people in standing up for themselves and protecting themselves after they leave the protections of high school?

Lauren Fardig-Diop: Yeah, that’s a wonderful question. And I think that there’s a lot of different ways that we try to approach that. So, our advisory program is one in which we deal directly with a lot of the issues that you just mentioned for young people. And we try to have student voice be a part of what happens. We try to tell our students all the time that they have the tools. And we’re teaching them the tools to be able to solve the conflicts that they are going to face when they are out in the world. And so, we try to teach them those skills, so that they can use them out in the community and out in the world as well. For example, we do have a very strong GSA, which is a gender and sexuality alliance here, in which our young people are, you know, kind of leading us and telling us what it is that they need as either folks who identify within the community or folks who are allies and supporters in the community to be able to operate safely in school and to be able to focus on their education while they’re here. Because, unfortunately, homophobia and transphobia happens everywhere. And it’s something that we try to take a stance against. But it’s really important that our students are part of the conversation to help us try to figure out how do we deal with these issues as a society. And so, we try to include them in the conversation, and we try to help them lead the conversation, recognizing that the young people and the people in our society who are closest to these issues are also closest to the solutions as well.

David Fair: In order to teach those lessons, every single one of the instructors and staff has to be willing to learn about their own implicit and personal biases and explore those. Kids see right through inauthentic people.

Lauren Fardig-Diop: Yes.

David Fair: What is ACCE High School doing with staff to ensure that the needed dialog and interpersonal experiences are aligned with the concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion?

Lauren Fardig-Diop: One of the things that we prioritize from the very beginning is building relationships and getting to know both staff and students. And so, it’s kind of starts with restorative circles and community building and circle work, and that’s kind of like building a community is really important and understanding that we are a community that is diverse across many kinds of differences. So, starting there is really important. And then, what we are doing this year, which I’m very excited about, is that we are working with Cornelius Minor, who is an author and educator who is based in Brooklyn, New York, and the WISD, to be able to read through Cornelius’s text, which is called “We Got This.” And it’s a book that is focused on equity in education and kind of how all of the things that we’re talking about with regard to exploring ourselves and our own biases kind of live and play out in our classrooms if we’re not careful to really try to interrogate our own biases and become anti-racist educators. And so, we’re working on a book study together. This is something that will be starting in second quarter after school. Educators who are opting in to this are able to, you know, access the book itself and have conversations about kind of where we come from, who we are as individuals, kind of before we’re educators, and then how our individuality, how our social identities play into the work that we do. And then also, how do we disrupt some of the things that we see when we see or notice that, you know, our biases are kind of slipping into things? How do we kind of disrupt and hold these others accountable and hold ourselves accountable to providing the best high-quality education that we can for every single young person that we interact with? And it takes a lot of work because, you know, our young people have experienced a lot of trauma and our adults in the building have also experienced a lot of trauma. We’ve collectively been through a lot with COVID. We have a lot of folks who are dealing with grief, a lot of folks who are dealing with mental health concerns. There’s a lot that we need to kind of push through. And so, taking the time and space as a staff to really kind of focus on ourselves and how we are growing as people is really, really important to building a stronger community and to providing the best kind of education that we can for our young people.

David Fair: So, as we take these short-term and individualized steps, I would think it also very important and vital to kind of approach this anti-racist education and restorative work as a lifelong process as opposed to just trying to get through and pass the academic year.

Lauren Fardig-Diop: Yes, definitely. And I think that’s what we’re trying to instill in our educators through many different ways. The idea that unconditional love and showing up is something that is so important to our young people and the idea that, like, we are imperfect and we are always growing and we ourselves are lifelong learners and should be lifelong learners. Myself, I’ve been doing anti-racist education work since I’ve been in college, so for over 25 years. And, you know, I am imperfect and I’m still doing this work and still learning as I go as well. And so, I think I try to model that as best I can for both our young people and for our educators that we may make mistakes, we may not be perfect, but it’s important that we continue to show up and continue to keep trying and continue interrogating how white supremacy has infiltrated our lives and our school system and what we can do to disrupt that to truly have a school that is inclusive and welcoming of everybody who walks through its doors.

David Fair: Lauren, I would really like to thank you for sharing your time and your insights today. Much appreciated.

Lauren Fardig-Diop: Of course. Thank you again for having me.

David Fair: That is Lauren Fardig-Diop. She is culture and climate coach at Ypsilanti’s ACCE High School, and she’s been our guest on Washtenaw United. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan, and we bring it to you every Monday. I’m David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.


Most recently, Achieving College & Carrer Education (ACCE) High School, part of Ypsilanti Community Schools, has received a $10,000 award from the 2024 cycle of United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s Opportunity Fund—a resource for local organizations and groups whose efforts address poverty, racism and trauma: root causes of systemic oppression that hold opportunity at bay for all people in Washtenaw County.

ACCE used their investment to pilot an ACCE staff equity and training initiative, that will leverage the needs of students from underserved communities in Ypsilanti.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is ‘Washtenaw United.’

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