A few years ago, Newaygo High School Principal Jackie Knight found herself growing concerned as she looked at a county expulsion list.

“I was very alarmed at the number of teens not being educated,” said Jackie. “These kids have to stay in school. We have to keep them longer.”

“When they’re expelled for 180 days, the likelihood that they’ll graduate becomes very small,” said Assistant Principal Sarah Rodriguez.

With the support of superintendent Dr. Peggy Mathis, Jackie and Sarah developed Project 180. The program is designed to help students facing expulsion stay on-track to graduate while also redirecting them toward more positive, connected lives.

Students work on creative projects at the Artsplace, attend counseling sessions with Arbor Circle, practice tai chi through a program of the Circuit Court, and receive academic support. There are also service projects, cooking classes, book studies, and college visits. The program is funded in part by a grant from the Community Foundation.

“It’s not all about academics,” said Sarah. “We have to address the social and emotional needs too.”

Along with the skills they acquire and the encouragement to stay in school, the relationships and connections students build through Project 180 have a profound impact.

“We found that we were still seeing them come into the office, but they were coming in just to check in and talk, not because they were getting into trouble,” said Sarah. “I look forward to this having a lasting positive impact on kids. They can look back and say, ‘There were people who believed in me.’”