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Students with mental and behavioral health needs often struggle in school, as early as elementary school. They may feel misunderstood, confused, or uncomfortable. And sometimes, it causes them to act out—which can disrupt their education and set them on an unwanted path.
However, there’s a Michigan organization providing extra support for these students and their families.
The Student Advocacy Center (SAC) is an education advocacy organization that works closely with students experiencing difficulties in school—to help them stay in school and reach their educational goals. The organization works out of three Michigan locations—including an Ypsilanti-based office, just steps from the city’s bus depot.
And thanks to millage funding, two of SAC’s key programs will reach more Washtenaw County students with support and guidance to maximize their academic experience and success.
Check and Connect is an evidence-based, education mentorship model that originated at the University of Minnesota and was adopted by the Student Advocacy Center in 2012. It’s been used for more than 200 local students who are in some way disconnected from their school and learning.
The program prioritizes students involved with the juvenile justice system, students with mental or behavioral health needs, and students who are frequently missing school or struggling with their grades.
SAC mentors “check and connect” with students every week for a minimum of two years, providing support and problem-solving for whatever a student is going through. It’s also youth-led, focusing on youth needs.
The mentors collaborate with community partners—primarily school districts, but also other social services organizations like WCCMH—serving as a bridge to ensure that their students are receiving all of the services and support they need.
Anell Eccleston is the director of care and sustainability at the Student Advocacy Center, a recent role after serving as Check and Connect program manager for several years. He notes that many educational programs focus on dropout prevention or failure prevention. However, Check and Connect is geared toward school completion.
“We’re trying to avoid further disciplinary actions against students—suspensions, expulsions, detentions,” says Eccleston. “But we’re also working with students one-on-one, and with their families, to steer them in a direction of completion.”
Based on the student’s school engagement data, mentors design a personalized, strength-based intervention and encourage problem-solving and goal-setting.
The program has shown impressive results—many youth have increased or maintained their attendance and passing grades, and decreased disciplinary incidents. Furthermore, close to 60 percent improved or maintained their CAFAS score—a widely used measurement of emotional, behavioral, and psychiatric youth health.
Through millage funding, Check and Connect will fund two full-time mentors who expect to serve 40 students across elementary, middle, and high schools in the Ypsilanti and Lincoln school districts.
Peri Stone-Palmquist is executive director of the Student Advocacy Center and will celebrate her 10th anniversary with the organization this spring.
She says that school experiences play a critical role in the mental health and development of youth, noting that staff see many students struggle with behavioral health challenges. However, many of these same youth and their families—especially those in the 48197 and 48198 zip codes where SAC focuses much of their work—don’t trust formal systems or therapy.
Stone-Palmquist says it’s important to first meet students and families wherever they’re at.
“That's really what Check and Connect does,” she explains. “The mentors aren’t therapists, but can provide support and often become that bridge to formal services later on. And we have that close relationship with Community Mental Health to make connections when the time is right.”
She also notes that while teachers and other school staff want to help their kids, they’re often underfunded and understaffed, making it difficult to devote the extra time and special care needed for certain high-needs students—especially after the pandemic and its lingering effects.
“So anything we can do to add more resources to our schools,” says Stone-Palmquist, “is critically important. We’re a phone call away—to show up and be present and supportive in those situations.”
Another program at SAC is Education Advocacy, which provides students and families with guidance on how to navigate the complexities of their school system—a challenge that’s often more daunting for low-income families and court-involved youth.
Stone-Palmquist notes that many parents are unsure how to advocate for their kids on their own, especially when they have little resources themselves.
The program utilizes a multidisciplinary team of advocates--with specialized knowledge of school law, policy, and practice--who can guide families through school-based situations. Stone-Palmquist notes that these cases are usually shorter in term than Check and Connect, though support is provided for however long is needed.
“Our advocates deal with expulsion and suspension cases—sometimes multiple suspensions,” says Stone-Palmquist. “And collaborate with the family and the school to create behavior plans.”
The advocates also help with placement decisions, determining the best learning environment for their clients based on unique client needs. For example, a student may need a special check-in at the beginning of their school day. Another may have PTSD from a traumatic event and need an outlet for extra physical movement. Some simply need a safe place to go before and after their school day.
“The team works intensely with the student to build their own self-awareness of the physical sensations in their body,” explains Stone-Palmquist. “So that they're increasing their own capacity to handle the stressors of school. I think you’ll often see non-profits focused on just changing the kid, but not the environment around the student. So we really try to be attuned to all the different dimensions affecting our youth.”
“Some of these situations can get quite complex and tricky to navigate,” she continues. “So, helping families and developing a plan where their student feels heard, seen, supported, cherished—all those things—that's what our team is working on.”
Similar to Check and Connect, the program has been successful with increasing attendance and decreasing student discipline incidents, with most students improving their grades. Millage funding will support half of an advocate’s salary.
Ben Murphy-Smith, is an education advocate with the center’s Washtenaw County office. He works with about 18-25 students and families at a time, sometimes assisting multiple siblings.
His cases are usually focused on two areas: school discipline and accessing or adjusting special education supports and services.
“Many cases with students connected to community mental health,” says Murphy-Smith, “are those that require more specialized educational services—due to complicated medical and, more often, mental health diagnoses that greatly impact a child's ability to participate in school.”
Most of the discipline cases he’s been involved with relate to fights at school, including students with poor impulse control or a history of trauma. He explains that school staff may not be trained to understand mental illness and other brain-related disabilities and how they can impact a student’s conduct. Therefore, he works closely with all parties involved in the student’s education.
“My role is flexible depending on the specific needs,” he notes. “Sometimes my relationship has my role looking more like an attorney, to invoke rights that parents may not be aware of. Other times, the family is taking the lead and I’m in the background offering support.”
Murphy-Smith notes a recent success where he helped a student reconcile with her principal and teachers after a large fight that would have kept her out of the school until the second semester. “I have also helped to reframe this specific student in the eyes of the school staff,” he says. “Now they better understand what this student has had to overcome, and that she’s more than just a student involved in a fight.”
“School success and mental health success are so deeply connected in ways that are surprising to people,” adds Stone-Palmquist. “Kids may be struggling with grades and their behavior. But the act of suspension only exacerbates their mental health needs. It’s a cycle that we’re trying to disrupt. And it’s very forward thinking of our community to recognize this and intervene.”
While mentors and advocates help families navigate the school system, Eccleston notes they’re also helping court-involved youth and families navigate the judicial system—attending court hearings and collaborating with court-appointed case managers. It’s an effort focused on disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline that sees many underprivileged youth transition from schools to jail—something he understands well from his time as a juvenile probation officer for Washtenaw County.
“During biopsychosocial assessments, I would ask [court-involved youth] lots of questions,” says Eccleston, “including their relationships with school staff. And a lot of them would say they don’t have them.”
Eccleston notes that his organization helps build bonds between students and school staff, so that school removal isn’t the default course of action.
“Black and brown students are suspended or expelled three times more [often] than their white counterparts,” continues Eccleston, noting that these same kids often end up in the juvenile and adult justice systems. “And a lot of that could be avoided if they were able to build relationships in the school building, instead of being excluded through disciplinary practices.”
“Just the act of suspending a student makes them much more likely to drop out of school,” adds Stone-Palmquist. “But it also makes them much more likely to be involved in the criminal legal system.”
“I know sometimes our school folks get a little upset at this concept of the school-to-prison pipeline,” she continues. “But I don't think we have time for that. I think we're in a crisis and we all have to recognize whatever part we're playing in a system where Black and brown boys, in particular with disabilities, are not present in their school. And instead they're either out in the community or involved in the criminal legal system.”
Stone-Palmquist says that the Student Advocacy Center is grateful for millage funding, which ensures their staff can continue their hard work within the communities they’re serving.
“I think there are a lot of good people in our county,” she notes, “coming together to think about how we change our juvenile justice system. That brings me hope. But we have a long way to go.”
Story by Gregory Powers