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Starr Suspension Center

Calhoun County children who have been suspended or expelled from school have the potential to move forward emotionally and academically at the Suspension Center of Starr Commonwealth Battle Creek. The center promotes academics, positive behavioral change, and personal enrichment for students -- and is helping kids successfully integrate back into school when they return. 
Michigan Nightlight: Tell us briefly about your program in terms of its purpose and who it serves.
Starr Commonwealth Battle Creek Program Supervisor Nate Cox: Our program is designed for students who are serving out-of-school suspensions or expulsions. We provide them with the educational and behavioral support services that they need to be able to return to school. We primarily serve students in Calhoun County, but actually, we provide services to any student as long as they have a means of transportation and a referral from their school.
What really differentiates this program?
There are a couple of things that stand out. The first one is that we are one of the few programs designed to reintegrate behaviorally challenged students back into their school of origin. There are a lot of alternative schools, but not many like ours. Another is that we use the treatment philosophies that were developed by Starr Commonwealth to assess the strength that children possess and to identify any traumas or underlying mental health issues that may contribute to behavioral problems. We work with Community Mental Health, so that if we -- or the students or their parents -- see indicators of mental health issues, we can make the referrals for psychiatric evaluations and treatment.
...we are one of the few programs designed to reintegrate behaviorally challenged students back into their school of origin.

What are the keys to success for your program?
Starr Commonwealth uses the treatment and education model that Harry Vorath and Larry Brendtro [a past Starr Commonwealth President] developed in their book, “Positive Peer Culture.” So, having adapted those principles, we believe that children have the strength to be a part of their own recovery; we believe in the power of peer mentorship, because kids are influenced by their peers more than they are by adults. They see their peers succeed, and they begin to believe that they can too.
For example, sometimes two kids may be suspended for fighting, and the school will refer both of them to us. This is where positive peer culture comes in; since we are helping both of them at the same time, they can go back to school after they have learned to resolve their issues together. This works much better than if we get only one of them, and that one walks back into an environment where the other one has not learned any of this and may still feel a lot of the conflict that was behind the fighting in the first place.
What existing challenges remain with this program and how do you plan to overcome them?
The atmosphere within our program is much different from traditional school. We have small classrooms, and we can accommodate most problematic behaviors, especially if a student becomes aggressive with staff or other students. We are able to work to identify the thoughts and feelings behind the behaviors and teach students new skills to help manage them.
But when kids return to school, many times they will return to those maladaptive behaviors because that’s the way they have been keeping themselves safe -- emotionally or physically -- at school, at home, or in the community.
One of the ways that we’re trying to help meet the challenge of returning from our very different environment back into school is to provide more traditional support, such a sending a staff member to school with them temporarily to help ease the transition.
We are also trying to resolve this by offering professional development to teachers and other school personnel so that they can learn and understand the conflict cycle and the way the brain works in crisis. The crisis intervention workshops are typically five-day training sessions; we hold them here on our campus and in schools.
What was the best lesson learned in the past year?
Last year [2012] was a year of transition for Starr Commonwealth Battle Creek. We used a federal grant to expand our facility so that we have the capacity to serve more children in all of our programs, and because of that, we were able to move the
But when kids return to school, many times they will return to those maladaptive behaviors because that's the way they have been keeping themselves safe -- emotionally or physically -- at school, at home, or in the community.
Suspension Center into the same building with all of the support staff last year. Before that, it wasn’t located on the home campus; we operated it in a facility that was about a mile away. I found out how important being housed under the same roof has been for our students. Instead of traveling to campus for their support services, they just go to another wing instead of going out into the elements.  It has created a great sense of community.
What are the youth in your Suspension Center program most inspired by? In turn, what gives their families the most hope for positive change?
We truly do see the good in every child, so, typically, our kids are most inspired by their own progress, and the successes of their peers. This could be learning to control anger or certain behaviors, but it can also be learning to try new things and look at situations in a different light.
Let’s say that a child has fallen so far behind in math that he has felt stupid and even been called stupid, and has completely lost hope for any kind of success in that subject. We teach kids to use their failures as feedback so that every wrong answer brings them one step close to the right answer. If we take a kid who is not doing well in algebra back to learning long division, to get back on track, that child is actually learning how to learn.
The families really appreciate the fact that we see their children’s problems as opportunities. We acknowledge that these behaviors have been difficult for everyone, but also that every problem has a solution. And if we can’t provide that solution, we’re going to help families find it. That gives them hope.
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  • Starr Commonwealth Battle Creek
    Our mission is to create positive environments where children flourish; our vision is to actively engage with communities worldwide to develop the greatness in every child.


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