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Q&A: Student Advocacy Center of Michigan is working to raise graduation rates and education in state

Fundraising, such as this 50/50 fundraiser at the Red Wings game, allows the Student Advocacy Center to provide the support and resources students throughout our state need. SACís annual fundraiser is May 6 in Ann Arbor.

Every child is entitled to a quality public education. However, too many children are not able to access this right due to circumstances they cannot control. The obstacles students face in and out of the classroom often spiral into negative effects on their education. The Student Advocacy Center of Michigan provides resources and support for our state’s most vulnerable students. InspirED Michigan chatted with SAC’s Executive Director Peri Stone-Palmquist to learn more.
 
What is the Student Advocacy Center of Michigan and what does it aim to do?
 
Stone-Palmquist: SAC has been around for 40 years to help K-12 students in educational crisis get back into school, stay in school and find success. We know that high school dropout and push out is one of the most expensive social problems we face. Through our youth-driven, collaborative education advocacy and support, statewide Student Rights Hotline, evidence-based mentoring program, youth voice leadership work and in-home family support, we are seeing real differences in the lives of our students. Our mission is to help our most vulnerable students stay in school, realize their rights to a quality public education and experience success.
 
What types of student populations does the Student Advocacy of Michigan aim to help?
 
Stone-Palmquist: We are particularly focused on students out of school or those most likely to drop out, including those impacted by school discipline, homelessness, foster care, abuse and neglect, the juvenile justice system, mental illness, disabilities and school absenteeism. We aim to protect students who are often facing a violation of their educational rights or an unresponsive or inadequate educational system.
 
What programs do you offer these students?
 
Stone-Palmquist: We partner with the youth and their parent, guardian or caregiver to explore educational options, understand their rights, enroll in school, address enrollment barriers, prepare for and participate in disciplinary, special education and other school meetings, access and coordinate other educational services and create trauma-informed behavior plans. We monitor academic progress and provide homework help and credit recovery as needed.
 
What success stories have been a product of SAC programs?
 
Stone-Palmquist: SAC helped to avert a mandatory expulsion of a first grade student who brought a knife to school after an older student threatened to kill him. SAC arranged for an emergency last-minute assessment from community mental health, which led to documentation that the student was not a danger and had no intention to truly use the weapon. SAC presented research about brain development at that grade level. We assisted the student, his parents and grandparents in their statement before the board. After more than two weeks out of school, the superintendent decided to return him to school with SAC’s recommendation of extra social work support and daily safety checks. An expulsion would have resulted in half a year out without education, but instead his grades and attendance have improved.
 
What effects have schools’ zero tolerance policies had on students?
 
Stone-Palmquist: Students need to be in school to learn and researchers have associated out-of-school removal with greater risk of school failure and risk of repeating a grade. But ultimately, a zero tolerance approach means more students will be out of school and ultimately be more at risk of dropping out. The Schott Foundation’s report Black Lives Matter shows that Michigan has some of the highest suspension and lowest graduation rates in the country. Being suspended even once in ninth grade increases the chance of dropout by 20 percent. Researchers have also found out-of-school discipline increases the chance of students becoming involved in the juvenile justice system, which costs more than $90,000 each year per youth in residential placement. Researchers have also found that higher rates of out-of-school suspensions actually predict higher future rates of misbehavior and damage perceptions of school safety. In a nutshell, zero tolerance doesn’t work. It hasn’t made our schools safer and it has exacted enormous societal costs. Michigan mandates expulsion for more reasons than just about every other state in the country, and it’s time to give school districts more discretion, support and incentive to keep students in school.
 
What is one key takeaway you’d like educators throughout the state of Michigan to know about the Student Advocacy Center?
 
Stone-Palmquist: We work really hard to be collaborative and non-adversarial, so many of our referrals come directly from schools. We have partnerships with several school districts, which automatically refer families to us when a student is facing long-term suspension and expulsion. They do this to make sure the family has support, to help get the real needs out in the open, to have someone who can help facilitate extra supports and ideas, to make sure due process rights are followed and to make sure there is ongoing case management, especially for students who are expelled. Families call us from all over Michigan, so we encourage schools to reach out to us for support.
 
To learn more about the Student Advocacy Center of Michigan, visit its website and connect on Facebook.
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