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Noella George already was sold on Lighthouse before her son was suspended from school last semester, so she didn’t hesitate to sign him up for a new program for kids temporarily kicked out of school.

Her son, a sixth-grader at Lefler Middle School, was one of 79 students who participated in the Alternative Suspension Program, a pilot project with two high schools and two middle schools that Lighthouse officials hope to see continue.

“This is the biggest no-brainer partnership,” said Lighthouse Executive Director Bill Michener. “We learned a ton and we know it’s beneficial. We want kids to be successful. Like Lincoln Public Schools, we want them to graduate.”

Michener traces the beginnings of the program to a discussion over coffee with Lincoln High Principal Mark Larson about how they could work together to help kids.

Although Lincoln High has been working to reduce out-of-school suspensions, Lighthouse, the longtime after-school program, offered an option for students when it was necessary, Michener said.

Out-of-school suspension lasts up to five days and can be a hardship on working parents, and students who are suspended often fall farther behind and become more alienated from school, Michener said.

While schools are required to provide educational programming for students who are expelled, there’s no similar requirement for suspended students.

Lincoln High and Lighthouse worked together with a few students in 2015-16 and, encouraged by what they saw, expanded the program last year to include Southeast High and Lefler and Irving middle schools.

“We found it worked pretty well,” said Irving Principal Jason Shanahan. “While out-of-school suspensions are sometimes necessary, they are not a successful behavior intervention — they don’t solve the problem.”

Instead of reinforcing what might be a student's desire not to be in school, having a structured program like the one at Lighthouse can begin to address problems while ensuring the student keeps up with schoolwork, Shanahan said.

Helping kids change behavior is a big part of the program, Michener said. Building relationships is the first step, and the basis of the organization’s after-school program.

Young people would often start the program angry. Sometimes, so would their parents. But often, by the end, their attitudes turned around 180 degrees.

“We are all about building relationships,” said Pete Allman, founder and board president of the program at 2601 N St. “Nothing can happen unless you have a positive relationship.”

The suspension program begins with Lighthouse staff getting to know each student, and includes a more formal “restorative justice” process that helps each student tell their story, understand who their actions harmed and learn how to keep it from happening again.

“Most kids don’t have an opportunity to tell their story, to be heard and move toward a solution,” said Michener, who said restorative justice practices being used in schools and juvenile justice programs are the essence of what Lighthouse has been doing for years.

Students come to Lighthouse thinking the program will be punitive, but they leave understanding that’s not the point at all, he said. They begin to transition from being defiant to being productive.

That can’t all happen when kids are there for just one day, Michener said, but it can set the groundwork for change. 

Forty-five percent of students who participated in the Lighthouse program came from Irving, where last year, the school's number of out-of-school suspensions hit a four-year low, at 107.

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Shanahan said the Lighthouse program contributed to that overall reduction, along with a number of other school efforts.

Irving had 34 incidents resulting in out-of-school suspensions during which students attended the Lighthouse program. Of those, 10 students went more than once. In the other 24 incidents, the students were not suspended again.

Overall, of the 79 students who came to Lighthouse’s program, 22 came more than once. A total of 522 students were suspended from the four participating schools last year.

Michener and Allman say they’d like to see the program used districtwide. LPS officials say that won’t happen this year, but they hope it can continue with some schools.

“It’s a great partnership everyone found beneficial,” said Jane Stavem, LPS associate superintendent of instruction.

George, whose son goes to Lefler and participated in the program, sees it as another way for the schools and community to work together.

She’s happy with how Lefler staff have worked with her son — being caring but following through with programs and consequences to help him learn, she said.

Having Lighthouse staff communicate with schools helps connect the dots.

“He knows the school and Lighthouse and his home are all communicating and are all on the same page,” she said. “It makes your whole community feel connected.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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