As a mentor at the Student Advocacy Center of Michigan (SAC), Jacorey Brown sometimes starts very early, with an 8 a.m. text from a student who needs a ride to school.
"I never tell them no, because that shows me that they want to be in school," he says.
Brown travels to connect with students in the classroom, making sure they're not skipping, or helping them with assignments. He says sometimes he just sits in the classroom observing, but that's an important way to demonstrate that students have support if they need it. When he was a young man, his mother emphasized the importance of education, and he tries to impart that same sense of urgency to the young people he works with.
"I try to stress to other young individuals, even though times may be hard right now, you have a whole future ahead of you and you can help shape your future by getting an education," Brown says. "Now that I see the importance of that and it's been a benefit to me, I want to help others realize that."
Brown carries on the work that Ypsilanti-based SAC has been doing since 1975, supporting Michigan students who need help succeeding in school due to homelessness, trauma, disability, behavior or attendance problems, and other barriers.
Beginnings in Washtenaw County
Statistics from SAC indicate that six students are expelled every day in Michigan, and African-American elementary school students are over five times more likely to be suspended than their white peers.
SAC Executive Director Peri Stone-Palmquist says SAC was originally founded in Ann Arbor by parents, NAACP members, and "other folks concerned about how students of color were doing in school and how they were being treated in school."
Founder Ruth Zweifler connected with other advocates, particularly those working in Ypsi, in the organization's first few years. She then began driving all over the state to help families facing expulsion and school discipline issues. Today, SAC has statewide reach, with offices in Jackson and Detroit in addition to its main office in Ypsi.
"We offer a continuum of services to support students to stay in school, find a path that's going to work for them, grow, and be successful," Stone-Palmquist says.
She says students aren't dropping out or being expelled due to malice on the part of teachers or administrators, but due to a variety of factors – the most common being that schools are under-funded and under-resourced. Another factor, Stone-Palmquist says, is that "we live in a punishment society."
"We lock up more people than in any other (developed) country, and that permeates the way we talk about children," she says. "When I was a kid, kids would get into fights, but now we've criminalized the language we use, and we might say, 'A first-grader assaulted a teacher.'"
Stone-Palmquist says administrators often feel they have to "send a message" by suspending a student, but SAC is trying to "disrupt that mentality that keeping a student out of school for 60 or 180 days sends a message that's worth sending."
"Our jobs as adults, collectively, is to take care of youth and create an environment where they can grow and be successful," she says. "Punishing students by removing them for long periods of time for annoying behavior is damaging and troubling. What we're doing for students that need more interventions is giving them an opportunity to reflect and make it right."
SAC's services include a statewide help line where parents and students can get advice over the phone or get connected to resources; a one-on-one mentorship program called Check and Connect; and advocates who are assigned to accompany clients to court or school disciplinary meetings.
Check and Connect, offered in each of the three cities where SAC has an office, is modeled after a program started at the University of Minnesota. Students have to meet certain research-based criteria that indicate they are at high risk of dropping out of school. Schools identify students in need, and SAC assigns them a mentor.
"They meet at least weekly, and often more frequently than that, for up to two years," Stone-Palmquist says. The mentor checks the student's attendance almost daily and checks grades and discipline records on a weekly basis.
Additionally, each of SAC's three offices has a dedicated advocate, plus others scattered around the state who will drive within a one-hour radius, to attend meetings or hearings with a student who needs SAC's help. Advocates also help students assess their own needs and come up with a plan to be successful.
One of the reasons Brittney Barros became a board member and later an intern for SAC is that the organization's advocates helped her family after she and her siblings entered the foster care system.
"We had a lot of school instability because we would go to placement after placement, and my siblings started to see a decrease in their grades," she says.
Due to the chaos in their personal life, Barros and her siblings had chronic tardiness issues, resulting in Barros being threatened with disciplinary action at the charter school she was attending. She received a 150-day suspension for her chronic tardiness, despite the fact that she was earning A grades and never got in trouble for any behavior problems besides the tardiness.
Later, when her siblings were threatened with similar disciplinary action, they received help from an SAC advocate, and a court ruled they couldn't be suspended because of their disabilities. But Barros didn't have the advantage of an SAC advocate and didn't receive the same protections, despite her good grades.
"The Student Advocacy Center would have been very beneficial to my life," she says. "(The court) said by law they couldn't suspend my siblings because they had a disability, but it would have been nice if my family would have known about SAC services at that time and had them come to my expulsion hearing."
Telling Tales Out of School
Some of the students who have been affected by SAC's work get to tell their stories each year during an event called "Telling Tales Out of School." This year it will take place on April 17 at 6:30 p.m. at Scarlett Middle School, 3300 Lorraine St. in Ann Arbor.
"It's an annual storytelling event where we bring student and professional storytellers together, and we also have an art exhibit beforehand," Stone-Palmquist says. "It's our big fundraiser for the year and it's a very powerful night."
Brown describes the event as "impactful."
"You're hearing the stories directly from the youth. However they're feeling at the time, however they want to deliver their story, is how you're going to get it," he says. "Most of the time it's really intriguing, because you never know … what that person is encountering in their life, what they're going through or trying to overcome."
More information about the Student Advocacy Center and its services is available here. More information about the Telling Tales event, including how to buy tickets, is available here.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.