This article is part of State of Health, a series examining integrated care and its potential to improve Michiganders' health. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.
In 2017, Battle Creek Public Schools (BCPS) superintendent Kimberly Carter reached out for help keeping students in school and out of trouble.
Carter and many other educators across the state of Michigan now recognize that kids behaving badly aren’t bad kids — that childhood traumas can put kids in a constant fight-or-flight mode that prevents them behaving appropriately. These educators have found that where punishment and consequences fail, compassion and resilience succeed. But the sea change needed to support that success literally takes a village.
Carter found that numerous key leaders in the Battle Creek community were willing to create that village. Her outreach has resulted in a monthly gathering known as “The Bearcat Meetings,” named after the BCPS mascot. The meetings bring together not only school district staff but also representatives from local organizations and systems that work with juveniles. Their shared goal is helping improve kids’ academic performance and their physical and mental health.
Michigan Department of Education partnership agreement liaison Lisa Francisco; Battle Creek Public Schools superintendent Kim Carter; and Battle Creek Community Foundation president and CEO Brenda Hunt at a Bearcat Meeting.
The Battle Creek Community Foundation and its BC Vision initiative helped Carter launch the collaboration.
“Two years ago, it was a small group,” says Brenda Hunt, president and CEO of the Battle Creek Community Foundation. “It has become one of our largest collaborations in this community.”
Hunt and her staff brought in leaders from Calhoun Intermediate School District, health care providers Starr Commonwealth and Grace Health, mental health care provider Summit Pointe, the Calhoun County Department of Health and Human Services, United Way, the WK Kellogg Foundation, BC Pulse, and Battle Creek’s police department, court system, prosecutor’s office, and juvenile probation department.
“Having the representatives of all the different institutions and systems at the table, we’ve seen more creative solutions and institutional change to support our student outcomes than I’ve ever seen,” Hunt says. “Most communities would envy our level of collaboration.”
Battle Creek Public Schools superintendent Kim Carter; Battle Creek Community Foundation president and CEO Brenda Hunt; and Meghan Taft, limited license psychologist at Summit Pointe, at a Bearcat Meeting.
“We see organizations that might not have discussed things before are discussing them now,” says Angela Stewart, BC Vision community initiatives officer. “No one organization can address everything. Now they have conversations with those that do, weave in support systems, step in with this family or this student. Before, people were addressing what they could address but not hitting the broader piece with the student.”
In the short time since the Bearcat Meetings began, Hunt says she’s seen the courts working more with other community institutions to come up with new approaches that get kids back into the classroom instead of back in trouble. For example, the Battle Creek Police Department’s Fusion Center links stakeholders to community concerns and opens communication between local law enforcement and community partners. The department also participates in the statewide “Handle with Care” initiative, which ensures that police officers reach out to school staff when a police matter involves a student’s household.
“The school is able to touch base, ask the child ‘How are you doing?’ and make sure they are ready to learn that day,” Stewart says. “That kind of a handoff can be extremely impactful for individual students as they come back into the school.”
United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region president and CEO Chris Sargent and Battle Creek Police Department chief Jim Blocker at a Bearcat Meeting.
A trauma-informed approach provides BCPS staff and collaborating organizations the context for meeting students with compassion and offering them tools for resilience — rather than more trauma in the form of expulsion or, in some cases, eventual incarceration. Starr Commonwealth has taken the lead in trauma-informed training within Battle Creek Public Schools.
“If we as professionals … intervene with that trauma-informed lens, we’re more likely to help the child develop new strategies and new coping skills,” says Derek Allen, chief operating officer of Starr Commonwealth. “ … This leads to longer-term, sustainable change and positive results for that young person.”
As an integrated health initiative, the Bearcat Meetings are also increasing students’ access to physical and behavioral healthcare in Battle Creek schools. Grace Health runs a health clinic at Northwestern Middle School with a full list of services. And as the local provider of Medicaid behavioral health services, Summit Pointe places clinicians in schools so students can access needed mental health care.
“We realized we all had a part to play,” says Summit Pointe CEO Jeannie Goodrich. “All of these systems were bumping against each other. We were committed to figure out how to make our systems more flexible and agile to support the schools.”
Allen says the Bearcat partners have also worked together to create a “comprehensive new intake process” when a student is being transferred into mental health services. The partners can decide together which service provider is best suited to help the student.
“All the different touchpoints are in the same place,” he says. “We can communicate with each other as the students and their families are provided the services they need most, as quickly as possible. We are removing barriers and improving access. It’s intentionally very well coordinated and helps to make sure people aren’t falling through the cracks along the way.”
Goodrich hopes to replicate the collaboration in other communities where Summit Pointe provides mental health services to schools. She hopes the Bearcat model could be expanded to all of Calhoun County within two to three years, and believes such collaborations could be particularly helpful in reducing the county’s above-average teen suicide rate.
“This has really, for me, been a pilot program. It’s being used to inform me on how to work more effectively with other schools,” Goodrich says. “ … We have to figure out how to work more effectively with kids who have a high incidence of trauma, help them differently when they are in high school, so we can help them be more effective at breaking the cycle of their past as adults.”
Allen believes the collaborations formed in the Bearcat Meetings are bringing the whole Battle Creek community together to do the best it can for its children.
“The people in that room, we’ve gotten to know each other. Any one of us can call the others personally and we can have a conversation to identify and enact solutions rather than getting it tied up in bureaucracy and red tape,” he says. “It’s not just the organizations at the table. It’s the presidents, CEOs, executive directors, and heads of every organization coming together monthly to say, ‘How do we as a community wrap around this student?’ We embrace the opportunity to help in any way we are able.”
A freelance writer and editor, Estelle Slootmaker is happiest writing about social justice, wellness, and the arts. She is development news editor for Rapid Growth Media, communications manager for Our Kitchen Table, and chairs The Tree Amigos, City of Wyoming Tree Commission. Her finest accomplishment is her five amazing adult children. You can contact Estelle at [email protected] or www.constellations.biz.
All photos by Susan Andress.