It is with a heavy heart that DCP must cancel our fall production, Little Shop of Horrors. Due to unforeseen circumstances, Copeland Auditorium is no longer available for use. Dexter Community Schools has unexpectedly rescinded our lease on the theatre until further notice …

So reads the home page of the Dexter Community Players, a strong cultural presence in the community since 1981. After Copeland Auditorium was renovated in 1999 as a black-box theater, most DCP performances were staged there. This fall, however, the Dexter school system is premiering an innovative alternative education program on Copeland’s stage.

“We’ve explained to the Dexter Players that we’re not yet certain how much space our new program will require, so we need time to make that determination,” explains Dexter Community Schools superintendent Chris Timmis. “We’re not closing the door on them, just asking for some time and patience. The only spaces available for us are the theater and the old board [of education] room, so that’s what we’re working with.”

The new program will initially focus on juniors and seniors who are struggling in school. “Ten years ago the feds and state changed the calculation for tracking four-year graduation rates, and since then we’ve seen a gradual dip in our graduation rate, down [to] as low as 90 percent,” Timmis says. “That’s unacceptable to us and to a community like Dexter.

“In many cases, these aren’t students with cognitive problems; they are teenagers struggling with sometimes overwhelming life problems,” Timmis says. “Even here in Dexter, we have a couple of homeless kids and kids who have to move from house to house. As a district, we need to acknowledge that bad things happen to good kids sometimes: divorce, loss of a parent, family disruptions, social issues, financial problems, and health concerns. Our goal is to help them any way we can. We definitely don’t want them to disappear or fall off our radar.”

He adds, “Dexter has so many highly motivated students and parents, and that’s great–unless you don’t or can’t share those high expectations. When your peers are talking about getting into highly competitive schools and you don’t know what you want to–or can–do, it’s hard to go to school day after day and feel isolated from their experiences, particularly if you don’t have a goal and a strong support system.

“Our core role as a school system is to educate and graduate our students. We want to ensure that each of our kids earns the required credits and educational experiences to graduate.”

Julie Snider, a former Mill Creek Middle School science teacher, will staff the program. Because most of the students weren’t successful at Dexter High, Timmis and Snider rejected the idea of locating the program there–and they felt that Mill Creek and the elementary schools would make seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds feel even more out of place. “So Copeland was our only resort.”

Dexter High expected to welcome 1,180 students in the fall; twenty to twenty-five of them will attend Copeland instead. “Dr. Snider will be creating this program from scratch,” Timmis says. “We’ll tailor each day to the students’ individual needs. Most don’t have perfect attendance records or supportive adults at home, and some don’t have reliable transportation, so we’ll have to be flexible.”

Timmis, who served as Adrian’s superintendent before coming to Dexter in 2013, launched a highly successful alternative education program there. “But this community is vastly different from Adrian, so we’re pioneering new territory.”

The school board approved the program last spring. “We really need to do this for our kids–and we need to do it now,” Timmis says. The school board didn’t approve a special budget–“other than Dr. Snider’s replacement at Mill Creek”–but the superintendent is confident that the program will be worthwhile. He and Snider plan to enlarge the number of participants gradually, eventually reaching out to struggling students as early as the fifth grade. “We want to catch problems before they become habitual,” he says.

This program is so new that it doesn’t even have a name yet. “We’ll let the kids help us name it,” Timmis suggests.

Attempts to reach Dexter Community Players were unsuccessful, but for now its website asks its audience to:

Please stay tuned for updates–we will be back up and running with a new show in no time.