Great Idea: Student Suspensions: There’s got to be another way!

The YMCA’s Alternative Suspension program has found it

It’s really the standard response from a system that feels it has no other option when dealing with a problem student: when they cross the line, suspend them. The hope is that the few days the student has away from the school will result in an upsurge in conscience and a correction in behaviour. Sadly, this is not always the case. This is why the YMCAs of Quebec decided to take action with their Alternative Suspension program.

Impressive track record

Established in 1999 in partnership with a school in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood, the program has since expanded to seven provinces serving 3 000 students (enough participants to fill 60 school buses!) at over 30 sites. Describing itself as a dropout prevention program, YMCA Alternative Suspension has boasted some impressive results over the years with 85 per cent of participants managing to improve their behaviour in the short term and, for the most part, remaining engaged in school after taking part in the program.

This is significant considering the historic data relating to high school dropouts. Statistics over the past 30 years clearly demonstrates the correlation between the high school dropout rate and how life becomes much more difficult without an education. The data indicates that high school dropouts make 15 per cent less than their graduating counterparts. They are also more likely to be unemployed, live shorter lives, experience depression and anxiety, and get into trouble with law enforcement. These are grim facts that have made keeping kids in school a priority since the graduation rate became a major concern in the 1990s.

Keeping kids in school

Back in those darker days, nearly 17 per cent of students who entered high school did not earn a diploma by the time they entered adulthood. Many of those students went on to struggle through their early 20’s – facing many of the social challenges mentioned above. That has changed quite a bit. Now the graduation rate is upwards of 85 per cent across the country with less than nine per cent dropping out of school entirely. In other words, the trend is to find ways to keep kids engaged in the learning opportunities presented to them in high school.

There are many reasons for the upsurge in the graduation rate and, correspondingly, the decrease in the dropout rate. Innovative programs have been introduced at schools and enrichment activities are managing to inspire student engagement. However, high school is not for everybody and, occasionally, a few kids need to be challenged and disciplined by the system. These are the very kids that are at the greatest risk of quitting school and heading down a path that is not good for themselves and not good for society at large.

A proactive approach

Enter YMCA Alternative Suspension: a proactive approach to keeping kids engaged in school and the greater community. Students referred to the program are not necessarily taking part in high risk, high profile incidents involving things like theft, assault, bullying and substance abuse (though these students are certainly referred to the program). Students can be referred for absenteeism, poor punctuality, lack of motivation and disruptive behaviour. The program is versatile and is designed to meet kids “where they’re at.” YMCA staff approach each case with fresh eyes and endeavour to give each student the help they need.  However, the program is not a walk in the park. According to George Kalimeris, the YMCA’s national director of school perseverance, “This break from school is not a vacation. It forces students to reflect on their behaviours, examine their attitude toward school, and identify what empowers and motivates them.”

Essential elements

So how do they do it? Well, the program considers several essential elements to be the key to winning the referred student over to their side.

-First, they need time. The program runs for a minimum of three days with longer stays in the program based on the needs of the student. This allows the staff to work with participants to keep up with their school work and to take part in program workshops and one-on-one counselling.

-Second, the fact that the suspension is being served off site means that students are on neutral turf at the YMCA. Consequently, they are not sitting idly at home or, in some cases, making mischief in the community.

-Third, the program relies on relationship building between staff and the student in both one-on-one interactions and group settings. In other words, the student isn’t streamlined through a hypothetical Alternative Suspension assembly line. Instead they are offered tailored options that meet the specific issues that brought them to the program in the first place.

-Finally, the staff engages in ongoing communication with the school and the student’s parents to review the participant’s progress both academically and socially. This is reinforced by a program youth worker accompanying the student back to school at the end of the suspension and a follow up with the student, the school and the parents one month after participating in the program.

And it works! YMCA Alternative Suspension lets participating students know that a team of people – including program staff, school staff and parents – care about them. This is why 85 per cent of participants improve their behaviour once they return to school. To test the validity of their program, the YMCA participated in a comparative study run by an external firm involving Alternative Suspension students and students not participating in the program. Here’s what they discovered:

In other words, YMCA Alternative Suspension students consistently outperformed students who did not take part in the program. According to George Kalimeris, “A suspension from school can be an opportunity; we can take advantage of these moments of crisis to show youths that there are other alternatives and options that they may not have considered without this intervention in their academic journey. As such, the crisis becomes an opportunity to learn, grow and discover.” It is a philosophy like this that has allowed the program to continue to expand while inspiring community partners to seek affiliation with the program. Recently, the Cowan Foundation donated $150 000 ($50 000 over each of the next three years) to YMCA Alternative Suspension in an effort to boost the programs efforts to help troubled youth stay in school.

Beyond community partners and innovative program delivery, YMCA Alternative Suspension gives a lot of the credit for their success to the schools and school boards that have bought into the program. It is not always easy for schools to partner with community agencies but a shared vision seems to naturally play out in the dynamic between YMCA Alternative Suspension and the school boards that have used their services. According to the Andrew Borrelli, the YMCA of Québec’s Director of Development – School Perseverance Sector, “School boards are essential partners and have been the cornerstone, not only to the program’s expansion, but also their consolidation across the country.”

In the end, it is YMCA Alternative Suspension’s ability to relate and engage in the lives of students that has allowed it to become a nationally recognized dropout prevention program. With a commitment to the self-worth and social development of each student, the program progresses relentlessly with one thing in mind: student success. This is why the thousands of students who take part in the program each year – whether in Moncton, Montreal, Edmonton or Surrey – are able to return to their schools with a fresh perspective and a renewed commitment to making the most of their education.

For more information on the program and to read some testimonials from participants, schools and parents, please visit:

By: Sean Dolan

YMCA Alternative Suspension Fact Sheet

  • the program is offered in more than 30 service sites across Canada with partnerships involving over 25 school boards, 250 high schools and 150 community partners
  • as of 2017, the program offers 150 000 hours of support for students taking part in the program
  • the program serves more than 3 000 students each year
  • since 1999, the program has served more than 25 000 students
  • While Quebec leads the way in YMCA Alternative Suspension sites, the program is growing in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and New-Brunswick.
  • The program is currently expanding outside of Canada with two sites (Courcouronnes and Evry) currently running in France with one in development -The United Kingdom is being evaluated for program implantation