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Alpena PIVOT program turns youth toward a brighter future

News Photo by Julie Riddle Sue Riedlinger, left, and Amy Hunt, leaders of Alpena’s PIVOT program for at-risk youth, sit in the PIVOT classroom at ACES Academy in Alpena last week.

ALPENA — As summer break releases many eager students from classrooms, other students will spend the summer in an Alpena program that will help them keep their freedom.

Currently in its introductory year, the Alpena PIVOT program provides an alternative for teens at risk of residential placement because of their involvement with the court system. Nine area high schoolers have participated in the weekday program — headquartered at ACES Academy — that provides individualized education, counseling, vocational training, and other interventions while allowing the students to stay in their homes and, hopefully, out of the court system in the future.

The program saved the county $70,000 since September in out-of-home placement costs this year, according to Kim Schultz, referee for Alpena County’s family court.

More importantly to its participants, PIVOT gives young people who have gotten in trouble a chance to do better, fix their mistakes, and realize they are smart, capable kids, according to Sue Riedlinger, a vocational specialist who works with the students.

The six current PIVOT participants complete online, self-paced Alpena Public Schools classes and are technically students of ACES Academy. Along with their classes, students juggle group and individual therapy, mental health appointments, meetings with probation officers, and court dates.

All participants have had a brush with the law, from offenses ranging from repeated truancy to serious crimes. All would be bound for residential placement — or worse — if it weren’t for the PIVOT program.

Some students came to the program straight from juvenile lockup, said Amy Hunt, school success liaison for Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency.

Group outings include career shadowing, museum visits, and college tours. Students visit businesses all over town — a salon, manufacturers, restaurants, a tattoo parlor — to see what a future without court involvement could hold.

Some weeks the students buy groceries, weigh vegetables in the checkout lane, and cook meals they planned themselves. They perform community service work and learn yoga. Mostly, though, students do whatever the courts think is most needed to be held accountable for their past while actively — and with supervision — working to improve their futures.

“And they are all killing it,” said Hunt, celebrating the students’ educational triumphs, whether defined as high grades, passing grades, or simply showing up for class. “If that’s your goal, then I’m right here, clapping you on, man.”

As of the beginning of June, 83% of the students showed academic improvement in their weekly progress reports, and parents have stepped up their involvement with the program during the year.

Several students have jobs and proudly invite Riedlinger and Hunt to stop by to see them at work.

The women — nicknamed Bert and Ernie by the students — intentionally model the healthy relationships the students may not see at home, talking comfortably to the students and to one another with playful banter and honest reflections.

The students represent a mix of backgrounds, but most are scarred by trauma and have had to cope with “adult stuff at a young age,” Hunt said. Despite the violent incidents that brought some to the program, the students have never been threatening or aggressive in the classroom, although they sometimes get anxious on court days, Hunt said.

When the program began, Hunt instituted Sweet Treat Monday, promising to bring a sugary snack at the beginning of each week. The students were astounded when she followed through.

Raw from tough lives and accustomed to being seen as “the bad kids,” the students struggle to hang on to hope for their futures, Hunt said.

Over and over they speak their fears to the PIVOT leaders, checking to see if they’ll get the same reassurances as the day before, expecting to hear the rejection the rest of the world gives.

“And we won’t do it,” Riedlinger said.

While their counterparts in other schools escape their classrooms for the summer, the PIVOT students will stay in session. The kids don’t like it, but, Hunt tells them, some decisions are up to probation officers.

“I expect this out of you because I know you can,” Riedlinger tells the students. “We’re just going to raise the bar and raise the bar until you’re ready to move on.”

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