The State of Michigan has identified all three high schools in the Lansing School District as “priority schools.” That is, they fall into the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state.

Superintendent Yvonne Caamal-Canul is working to change that by identifying and eliminating points of weakness.

“We are very concerned about our graduation rate, and we’re very concerned about the spiral drop-off between ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th grade,” Caamal-Canul said. “We also are focused on things like discipline, and we want to reduce our rate of suspensions because every time you have high suspension rate, you have high dropout rate. I mean, if kids aren’t in school, how can we expect them to learn?”

To curb the suspension rate, the district has implemented a mentoring program in its high schools, as well as Pattengill and Gardner middle schools.

“We’ve initiated a behavior prevention program, and we’ve installed behavior prevention staff to work with kids that have high-risk behaviors,” Caamal-Canul said. “This is different from counseling. This is sort of like mentoring or a role model. We know that the No. 1 element of keeping kids in school is to have a positive adult role model, and so we are working with Michigan State University and staff in the College of Outreach and Engagement there as well as internal to our district to work with these at-risk behaviors to reduce suspension rates and to increase student engagement.”

Although the program officially began this fall, some schools put their staff members in place only this month. Emerson Sheffey was hired to the behavior prevention staff at J.W. Sexton High School just two weeks ago.

“This program is targeted for students on the cuff of having suspension problems, apathy and lack of engagement in the classroom,” Sheffey said. “For the most part, we target students who are showing behavior that may cause them not to succeed.”

Annie Eggleston, another mentor at Sexton, said her office identifies high-risk students by looking at their backgrounds, receiving referrals from parents or teachers, or inviting students to self-identify as needing help. She said some students hear about the resource from friends who work with the mentors and then voluntarily seek help.

Once the high-risk students are identified, Eggleston and her colleagues watch their attendance records, meet with them weekly for support, and essentially affirm that somebody is keeping track of them and holding them accountable.

Sheffey said he meets with students individually three to four times per week and then with the parents weekly.

The primary tactic is to redirect students using positive reinforcement. Sheffey, for example, encourages involvement in extra-curricular activities, such as Explorer’s Club, Boy Scouts or sports, to provide them outlets for their non-academic troubles.

His office also hosts group workshops once a month for students to learn about accountability, anger management, study skills and various other strategies to increase success.

The office quantitatively measures student improvement by monitoring class attendance and grades throughout the semesters.

Caamal-Canul said she is confident that the program will help improve student behavior and achievement.

“If you have positive adult role models, if you have people who care about you, if you have a culture in your school that says, ‘This is a place that will hug you and love you in spite of yourself,’ as long as we have that in front of us, who doesn’t want to go to a place where they know they’re welcomed and people care about them?” she said. “I mean, all kids want is to be cared about, and sometimes they manifest that desire to be cared about in not so positive ways, so we have to figure out ways to say, ‘This tantrum really means you want someone to care about you.’”