South-Western, YMCA partner on PALS program as beneficial alternative to suspensions
A two-decade-long partnership between South-Western City Schools and the YMCA of Central Ohio provides an alternative to traditional suspension or expulsion of troubled students.
On Aug. 23, the South-Western school board approved the district's participation for the 22nd year in the YMCA's Positive Alternative Learning for Students program – PALS, for short – which is offered at the Vaughn E. Hairston YMCA in Urbancrest.
Over the past five years, more than 1,100 South-Western students have participated in the program instead of sitting out school on a three-, five- or 10-day suspension, Deputy Superintendent Jamie Lusher said.
"It's a much more positive approach than just sending students home for a few days," she said.
PALS offers students a structured and supervised setting in which they are able to keep up with their school studies, said Don Heard, who has served as executive director of the program since it began as a pilot in 2000.
South-Western has participated in the program since it began, Heard said.
Columbus City Schools also participated in the program until last school year, when it dropped out.
"PALS is a good alternative-education program for a face-to-face, five-days-a-week academic model. Many students benefited from a different approach with different staff for however long their PALS assignment was, in lieu of suspension," said Jacqueline Bryant, Columbus City Schools' director of communications.
The YMCA PALS program was funded by the Ohio Alternative Education Challenge Grant, she said.
"The funding was ending, (and) that, along with transitioning to remote learning, transportation concerns and the uncertainties of the pandemic, led to the district’s decision to end its participation in the program," she said.
South-Western students are referred to the program by their schools, Heard said.
"It's an alternative option when other options at the local school level have been tried and not worked," he said.
Students who participate in PALS typically have committed such infractions as fighting, insubordination and truancy, Heard said.
Heard helped start the program after he contacted the YMCA and offered to serve as a volunteer.
"I had previously worked as a teacher before going into the restaurant business," he said. "I had fed a lot of students who stopped by my place at Northland Mall for lunch. I wanted to give something back after making so much money from students. I told the YMCA I was ready to help out in any way I could."
The PALS program previously had been offered at the downtown branch of the YMCA and the Feddersen Community Recreation Center in Columbus, along with the Urbancrest location, Heard said.
With Columbus no longer participating, the program is being offered only in Urbancrest for the 2021-22 school year, he said.
"In a typical year, we will have about 200 individual students from South-Western go through our program," Heard said.
The PALS program is staffed with a teacher, case manager and guidance counselor and is limited to no more than 20 students at one time, he said.
"That allows us to give students attention on an individual one-on-one basis, as well as in a group setting," Heard said.
The teacher works with students to make sure they are completing the school work forwarded by their school and classroom teachers, he said.
When a student is introduced to PALS, the first order of business is an intake session, case manager Laura Pontius said.
"Sitting down and talking with the students helps us better understand the underlying issues that may have led them to being in their situation at school," she said. "A lot of students will tell us that this is the first time anyone's talked with them in this way."
It's important for students to figure out and accept why they've been referred to PALS and to consider how they can improve their situation at school, PALS counselor Wayne Cummerlander said.
"We're helping them put together a way to transition back positively into regular school, he said. "The message they're getting from us really isn't anything they haven't heard before at school. Sometimes, though, it helps to hear it from a different source. It may make them realize they're something to it, if they're hearing it from someone other than their teacher, principal or guidance counselor."
Part of the PALS program includes connecting students with resources and social services to address issues they may be facing at home or personally, whether it's drug use, homelessness or food scarcity, he said.
"At PALS, we measure success at whether a student is able to successfully transition back to regular school," Heard said. "By that measure, we have a success rate of about 80%."
South-Western teachers, guidance counselors and principals determine which of their students would most benefit from participating in the PALS program, Lusher said.
"A preponderance of the students we refer to the program are middle school-age, seventh- and eighth-graders," she said.
Perhaps the most positive aspect of the PALS program is that is allows students to keep up with their school work rather than simply be suspended from school and left to their own devices at home, Lusher said.
Traditional suspensions often can seem like a vacation from school for students, she said, and the idleness could lead to further trouble.
"PALS is not a punitive program," Heard said. "It's not punishment."
The program is structured as a typical school day, with students arriving in the morning and leaving in the afternoon and having a lunch break, he said.
South-Western will pay $125,000 to reserve 20 seats for the 2021-22 school year.
The payment covers the cost of the program, Heard said.
The new contract began Sept. 1.
The PALS program likely will begin its sessions around the middle of this month when the first set of students facing suspensions are assigned by their schools to participate, Heard said.