Mother, daughter co-found program for expelled students

Published 9:45 am Thursday, February 23, 2017

This week, for Black History Month the Niles Daily Star will commemorate some of the African Americans in the Niles community who have blazed a trail, inspired others and worked tirelessly to better the community in which we live.
Today’s Black History Month feature highlights the work of mother daughter duo Charlie and Mary McAfee, who co-founded the Fresh Start Program, which helped to give hundreds of students, expelled from the public school system an education.
Everyone deserves a second chance. At least that is what Charlie McAfee and her daughter Mary McAfee believed when they co-founded the Fresh Start program out of the Michiana Christian Embassy in 1994.
The program would serve students Berrien and Cass Counties who had been expelled from the public school system and had no other way to continue their education.
Students who entered the program got an education and a second chance at entering the public school system, once they proved their change in behavior.
In 1993, Mary was selected to serve on the Niles Community School’s Board of Education. Through this work, she noticed that expelled students did not have an option to continue their education. She asked then superintendent John Huffman what could be done.
“So where do these kids go? I think whoever wrote the rule had not thought about it,” Mary said.
Some students who faced expulsion were struggling in their academics due to a challenging home life, while a few others had violated the no-tolerance policy against weapons. Mary recalled at least one student who claimed to have forgotten about a pocketknife in his possession. The student was subsequently expelled.
Mary wrote up a plan for the program, drawing from her experience in social work and in operating programs through Work Force Development.
When Charlie heard about the plan, she agreed to co-found the project with her daughter.
Like Mary, Charlie agreed that education is the foundation of success.
“If a kid is not in school and has no education, how can they learn anything?” Charlie said.
Charlie functioned as an administrator and helped to run the day-to-day operations of the program. Mary served as a board member. The program was also managed by the Multi-Cultural Involvement Council. There were also three paid teachers and four volunteers.
Brandywine Superintendent John Jarpe joined the council in 2004 and served until the school closed in 2011.
“Anything that benefits kids and keeps the door open for them to be successful in school is worth time and effort,” Jarpe said.
Those enrolled in the Fresh Start Program stayed until they proved that they could successfully re-enter the public school system. For some students that was as little as a month, while others were there long enough to graduate from the program.
While Jarpe said not every student changed their ways, the majority succeeded in the program.
The first year, eight students entered the program. To gauge how to best help the students, the children were tested and based upon their education level, they would work with teachers and mentors to receive more individualized attention.
“I thought the program did a good job,” Jarpe said. “It was a tough love approach that they ran. I saw some students able to return to the regular school district.”
With a single look, Charlie was known for being able to influence a disobedient student to behave, earning her the nickname “Grandmother Warden.”
To tackle some home life issues, Mary and Charlie mandated that parents get involved and take ownership in their children’s academics.
They also received generous food donations from some area businesses so that students had the means to start their day with full stomachs.
“So many people came to the rescue and helped in one way or the other,” Mary said.
Charlie said that in addition to getting a more individualized education, students who entered the program also learned a thing or two about manners and how to respect their teachers.
These lessons also extended into the courtroom, a place where some of the school’s students had to spend their time before a judge.
Charlie said she taught them to dress nice, be polite and listen to the judge.
The program received some state aid and financial support from the Niles Community Schools. After a couple of years, the program was able to secure a grant from United Way for roughly $5,000 per year, according to Mary. They also earned grant money from the Berrien County Community Foundation.
After 17 years, the school closed its doors in 2011, when the Niles school system decided to have students instead spend their suspension time within the walls of the school. With the mission to be a partner with the schools, Mary said they decided it was time to close their doors.
Jarpe said that the schools now have other options for students who need additional help, such as online programming. He also said he is happy to report that they have not expelled a student from Brandywine since 2011.
Mary now works for public housing in Benton Harbor and Charlie serves on the Niles city council as a council member.
Charlie has been recognized by former Niles Mayor Mike McCauslin for her volunteer work for the program. McCauslin even officially named a day in her honor.
After 17 years of work, the McAfees agree giving students a chance to succeed was worth every second.
“It was a hard job,” Charlie said, “but I loved it.”