Speaking For Kids

Building a Bridge to Success

At a Youth Voice event held Friday, April 13th, decision makers from Calhoun County heard Marshall Alternative High School (MAHS) students discuss their changing educational experiences because of an innovative partnership that began this school year. For more information about the program, check out our Focus on Michigan’s Communities –Building a Bridge to Success: The Opportunity School.

At the event, each student was asked to talk about 1) what circumstances brought them to MAHS, 2) how their experience at the school is different from their former schools, 3) what barriers they still face that affect their educational success, and 4) what they want to be doing in 2-5 years.

The student’s stories were honest, funny, and compelling.  They each discussed barriers that still exist for their own situation like health and family issues, learning disabilities, the perceptions of their family and the public value of alternative education, and access to transportation – one student drives 70 miles round trip daily to attend school. The students identified common benefits and concerns about working toward a diploma through an alternative school rather than through a traditional high school setting.

School Rules vs. Teachers Caring.  All eight students said the main difference between their former school(s) and MAHS is that “the teachers really care.” When our moderator, Becky Rocho from Calhoun ISD, asked students to explain how they know the teachers care, they said, “I know what the rules are, they all keep me in line,” “We’re not allowed to have cell phones in class- you don’t get to talk on your phone while you’re at work, why do you need to have one in class,” and “We can only miss 7 days a semester, no job is going to let you miss 7 days without getting in trouble.”  Interestingly enough, the students all saw teacher’s involvement, clear rules and stricter school policies as their teachers caring about their success – as opposed to these things being a burden on students.

Job Connections.  Each student expressed concerns about finding jobs – and the connection that has to their ability to continue to excel. Some students said they need a job so that they can pay people for gas to get to school, or buy a car – others said they need help getting employers to see that attendance at an Alternative School is worthwhile, particularly when they feel like they’ve chosen MAHS as a positive step towards maturity and independence.  Afterwards, attendees at the event discussed developing a program in partnership with area businesses to place students in job shadowing or internship opportunities connected to student’s various career goals.

Study/Learning Habits.  When asked if there was anything else they wanted to share, one student said that what has helped him the most attending MAHS is that teachers have time in class to help.  He talked about feeling like just a number in his old school and all the rest of the students nodded in agreement.  This started a discussion about small class size and students comments included, “They won’t let you fail,” “They don’t just tell you what to do- they help you learn it,” “They give us one on one help in class,” and “They take time to be sure I understand.”  This theme was overwhelmingly reflected in attendee evaluations – the need for better funding to ensure smaller class sizes that allow more individual attention and learning.

Something to note is that the students’ perceptions weren’t unique – we see the same issues, concerns and benefits of the flexibility offered through alternative education options in programs across Michigan.  What is unique is that this program was developed in partnership with the leaders within the local public schools, community college and the local chamber of commerce.  The community has made a commitment to address the needs of their students – and by leveraging these partnerships the community will continue to grow this program that is not yet a year old.

Michigan’s Children continues to highlight innovative options for high school completion and paths to successful post-secondary and career that combat the current inequity in Michigan graduation rates for low-income students and students of color.  We work hard to move decision makers at all levels to better align state and federal policy to better support community leadership on this issue around the state.

-Beth Berglin

Failing Michigan’s Youngest = Failing Michigan’s Future

Since its inception, Michigan’s Children has focused on children’s well-being from cradle-to-career – a concept that aligns with Governor Snyder’s P-20 education continuum.  With Executive support for this continuum; as a state, Michigan must put its money where its mouth is.  While the state has made efforts to support preschool-aged children through the Great Start Readiness Program, the state’s half-day preschool program for four-year-olds at-risk of school failure, we have failed as a state to provide consistent support for Michigan’s youngest learners – those three years of age and younger.

It is well documented that the first 1000 days of life are critical for the healthy development of young children – a time when the brain is developing rapidly and early literacy and foundations for lifelong success can be solidified.  More importantly, the first three years of life are critical to prevent large racial, ethnic, and economic-related disparities that begin to emerge as young as nine months of age and continue to grow throughout life.  Disparities in child outcomes, particularly educational disparities, have huge consequences such as:

  • kindergarten teachers needing to spend more time with students who aren’t ready for school;
  • students repeating grades in K-12;
  • more students needing access to special education services;
  • disparities in on-time graduation rates; and
  • disparities in college and career readiness.

These outcomes combined will in the long run, take a toll on the state’s economy as we will not have a workforce prepared to take jobs of the future. Long-term disparities in educational success and their economic, social and fiscal consequences are profound.  However, taking advantage of the first three years of life by supporting families with young children to be their child’s first and best teachers can help reduce future taxpayer burdens associated with disparate child outcomes.

Michigan’s Children’s key priorities for the fiscal year 2013 budget are to improve educational outcomes and close equity gaps.  Creating a sustainable funding stream for children from birth through age three would provide the foundation for that improvement.  High quality supports for infants, toddlers and their families can help reduce and prevent equity gaps directly linked to the Governor’s Dashboard including infant mortality, child poverty, 3rd grade reading, and college readiness.

The State of Michigan used to support families with young children through the 0 to 3 Secondary Prevention Program.  0 to 3 Secondary Prevention supported community-based collaborative programs that fostered positive parenting skills, improved parent-child interactions, promoted access to needed community services, increased local capacity to serve families with young children, improved school readiness, and supported healthy environments.  It’s funding peaked at $7.75 million in 2001 before complete elimination in last year’s budget debates.  It is critical that Michigan reinvest in young children from birth through age three by creating a consistent source of funding for infants, toddlers and their families to truly realize the P-20 education continuum.

Check out Michigan’s Children’s website to learn more about our early childhood priorities.

-Mina Hong

Mental Health Coverage: From a Parent’s Perspective

Case studies and personal testimonies have an incredible impact on policy decision-making. This strategy is crucial for many families who are not able to self-advocate or are underrepresented in the process because they are marginalized by poverty, geography, language barriers or by caring for a child with a disability.  At Michigan’s Children we seek these voices and want to bring them forward.

Prior to my MSW Internship at Michigan’s Children, I spent a great deal of time advocating for families in the special education system.  By far the most challenging families were those from foreign, non-English speaking countries, low-income families of color, and migrant families.  Advocating for children with disabilities with Individual Education Plans (IEPs) was hard enough, but adding poverty, language and cultural barriers to the equation, made the work even more challenging.  These families needed wrap-around support, education and coaching, but instead often watched as their child was shuffled from school to school or classroom to classroom, because no one could accommodate their child in their current placement or home school. As a result, many students face multiple challenges including differential school discipline, connections to the juvenile justice system, and being at-risk of school dropout.

Three bills are before the Senate Committee on Health Policy that would mandate health insurance coverage of autism spectrum disorders (ASD).  SB 414 and SB 415 provide the comprehensive language specifying the age parameters and treatment modalities, among other aspects.  SB 918 is a new bill, tied to the two others, which would create a fund to reimburse insurers for these expenses, as an incentive.

There is critical need for this coverage, which has been legislated in 29 other states to date.  At issue however, is whether this legislation should be a stand-alone policy that affects the estimated 15,000 Michigan families currently impacted by autism spectrum disorders (ASD) or if it should be an all-inclusive policy that would provide insurance coverage for all families with children with mental health issues.  43 out of 50 states currently have mental health parity (excluding  Michigan) and most of the legislation passed on autism coverage occurred after mental health parity was passed into law (25 out of 29).  ASD is commonly associated with other disorders (otherwise known as co-morbidity), including ADHD, Depression, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and/or Seizure Disorders, often developing as children mature and reach the age of puberty. It seems like we are creating a disparity  even within the ASD population. These autism bills will cover children up to age 18, but because we do not have mental health parity, older individuals with ASD will not be covered for either their primary disability, or any co-morbid conditions.

As a parent of a son with ASD, managing the care of a loved one with a disorder or disability is a long and exhausting road that never ends.    Finding physicians or mental health professionals with experience in working with children with disabilities can be a challenge all by itself.  With mental health parity, it would seem very likely that the pool of experienced practitioners would increase in Michigan. This, in and of itself, would be a welcome by-product of mental health parity law and even the current autism bills under discussion.

-Ann Telfer

Ann is an MSW student from the University of Michigan School of Social Work completing her field placement with Michigan’s Children.

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