Out-of-school suspension is increasingly seen as a contributing factor to poor academic outcomes. Students get sent home and get behind in their school work, and some never catch up. In response, schools across the nation, including several in Wyoming, have created alternatives. One of them is the Albany County Expelled and Suspended Program, mostly commonly referred to as ACES.
The two days I went to visit ACES there were surprisingly no students. But I was still welcomed by Dwayne Tillman, the program’s one and only teacher. For him, he said, “It’s a good thing when no one in the district is suspended or expelled.”
But he said this rarely happens. “This has been our first week that it’s been so slow.”
He said he can have upwards of 10 students in his class at a time. Some show up for a day. Some stay for year, if they’ve been expelled. And they’re in any grade —from kindergartners to high school seniors.
He explained how, “The other day we had a third grader and a sophomore at the same time.” That meant he had to switch back and forth from reading, writing and basic math to more advanced science. He pointed to the board. “You can see on the board with the sophomore we were working on some biochemistry and talking about ionic bonds.”
ACES is a partnership between Albany County School District #1 and the Laramie Youth Crisis Center. The classes take place at the crisis center, which doubles as a home for kids who need shelter.
Mr. Tillman’s classroom is right off the kitchen and it’s pretty cozy. There are several tables that kids write on with dry erase markers. There were lingering bits of math equations in purple and blue. And he showed me a closet full of supplies. There were paints and a sizeable collection of young adult fiction.
A lot of this he’s donated himself. He pointed out the Lego sets, and said they’re great if kids feel the need to “build or tear something apart.”
His first priority is solving emotional struggles, before he starts in on math problems.
“You know sometimes a kid will come here and they’ll be in a pretty elevated and agitated state. And a lot of time what we’ll do is give him space.” Tillman says that looks different for different kids. “Maybe they just need to take a moment to take a moment to write about things that are bothering you. Or you could draw or paint.”
And if that doesn’t do the trick, there is even a counselor on hand. So if this is all about supporting kids academically and emotionally, why even remove them from school? I asked Rob Bainer, vice principal at Laramie Junior High.
Bainer said: “It’s also not just a deterrent and a consequence but it’s also to help the other students who are in this school to make sure they maintain a harassment free and safe environment as well.”
Bainer works closely with Mr. Tillman. For him, ACES provides space for everyone involved to take a much needed time out — the student, their classmates, the teacher — without setting a kid back academically.
“If the ACES program did not exist and students were merely just suspended home I think we’d just see students become more and more disconnected with the schools.” And according to Bainer that can lead to larger dropout rates. “I think it’s important for kids to know they have someone who cares.”
A teacher I know passed my number to the mom of one of her students who had recently been suspended. And she gave me a call. That’s how I connected with Demi Greenamyre.
She invited me over to her home, and I’m met at the door by Demi and Damen. He’s 12-years-old and in sixth grade at the Laramie Junior High School. He’s a sweet kid who comes off as quiet yet confident. His three year old sister wants to talk too, and Damen is patient with her as she interrupts our conversation.
Damen told me he has been suspended twice since he moved to Laramie almost two years ago from Torrington. The first time, in fifth grade, was just for one day. But this year he was suspended for three days.
He said ACES is a good program. “I got caught on my homework and they made some stuff more easy to understand.” Damen said he could focus on his studies better at ACES. He explained that’s because “There weren’t that many kids in one area. And I wasn’t talking a lot.”
At school he has a tendency to talk. And that’s —more or less— how he got suspended. But he’s decided he wants to do well academically. So he figured out how to bring what worked for him at ACES into his regular classroom. He said he recreates the vibe he felt there.
“I have this little pod group in all my classes so I picture myself just with them.” He said he wouldn’t have figured that out staying at home. “I would have fallen behind in my grades more. Because I feel like I would have been distracted.”
If ACES wasn’t an option it wouldn’t have been easy for his mom. “He’s already 12 so he could stay home by himself now but I would have to like find coverage for work and switch shifts, and stuff like that.”
Damen admitted he knows it stresses his parents out when he gets in trouble. His plan is to avoid getting suspended again.
The only thing that might bring Damon back to ACES is his love for skateboarding. He knows that on the side, Mr. Tillman sometimes teaches a skateboard building class.