Our Story

Standing Up for Students Since 1975

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Our Origin Story

Student Advocacy Center was born in 1975, when a small group of community members, concerned about the excessive use of school suspensions and expulsions and the disparate impact on poor children and children of color, came together to assure that the voices of our most vulnerable children and their parents were heard. This group dreamed of a community where every student was heard, cherished, challenged and supported. They went to work helping one student at a time (sometimes right in the founder’s kitchen), while always seeking to shape and transform the very systems that impact us all.

“The children who most need excellent educational services are, in fact, receiving the least,” noted civil rights activists Albert and Emma Wheeler. (Albert also served as mayor of Ann Arbor.)

Under the leadership of founder and executive director Ruth Zweifler, who served as director until she retired in 2004, the Student Advocacy Center worked for educational justice. In 1977, we brought forward a lawsuit against the Ann Arbor Public Schools (later known as the Black English case) on behalf of 11 elementary school students. The resolution of this landmark case asserted that the school system was failing to meet the needs of Black students and was misidentifying them as having special needs.

Over the years, we continued to raise issues locally and nationally about the lack of equitable education for students of color, from the uneven distribution of suspension and expulsions across race, to the need to eliminate the Michigan’s harsh Zero Tolerance laws, which kept many students out of school.

Today we are proud to be the only organization that provides non-legal advocacy to students and their parents across Michigan. We continue to deepen our commitment to equity and justice as we provide resources and support to students, their families and the educational community.

You can find more information on our history at the Ann Arbor District Library and in the archive of the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan.


Meet Ruth Zweifler, Our Founder and Director

  • 1975, Student Advocacy Center Established

    A group of citizens came together assure that public schools would serve all children. “The children who most need excellent educational services are, in fact, receiving the least.” -Albert and Emma Wheeler

  • 1977-79, MLK Elementary School Children v. Ann Arbor Public Schools

    Student Advocacy Center collaborated with Michigan Legal Services to bring this federal lawsuit asserting AAPS violated federal law because it failed to consider the home language of children. The court ordered AAPS to identify “Black English” speakers and to “use that knowledge in teaching…standard English.” This remains our only formal legal action.

  • Late 1970s, Corporal Punishment

    Margaret Sayles Harner worked with Student Advocacy Center founder Ruth Zweifler on a legislative task force to end corporal punishment in schools. Harner joined Zweifler as a volunteer to expand the Student Advocacy Center’s work beyond Ann Arbor Public Schools.

  • 1980s

    Volunteers published a guide to student rights and serve as a watchdog, raised issues locally and nationally about the lack of equitable education for students of color. Even in 1985, Student Advocacy Center called out the disproportionate number of students of color being suspended. SAC’s individual casework focused on keeping students in school. Special education advocacy, as well as advocacy for court-involved youth (who were denied an education), were key components, as well. SAC was also part of a national network of advocacy organizations trying to push equity issues to the top of the national policy agenda.

  • 1988, Restructuring

    Student Advocacy Center moves from a local organization to a statewide one with a broader concern for systemic issues related to public schools.

  • 1988-1995, The Fourth ‘R’ Rights of Students

    is created and distributed in Arabic, English and Spanish.

  • 1992, Court-Involved Youth

    Margaret Harner becomes Project Director for this Ford Foundation program.

  • 1999, Project SOAR

    In conjunction with Washtenaw Community College, Student Opportunities and Alternative Resources project places children excluded from public school systems in alternative placements, most notably at Washtenaw Community College. Placements delivered a message of respect and encouragement to children barred from their community.

  • 2001, Active Voices of Youth

    Funded by Kellogg Foundation, this project enabled Student Advocacy Center to travel to youth in schools in communities such as Detroit, Benzie, Monroe and Washtenaw counties to hear from the students themselves — both those who were successful in school and those who struggled – about what makes school work best.

  • 2001, Fire

    Devastating arson at United Way Building. Student Advocacy Center’s offices in the building were severely damaged and many archival materials were lost.

  • 2004, Leadership Change

    Ruth Zweifler retires as Executive Director. Leslie Harrington is welcomed as new Executive Director.

  • 2005, Nowhere to Go – The devastating journey of youth expelled from Michigan schools

    is published by future Executive Director Peri Stone-Palmquist, who conducted the research as a graduate student in collaboration with Student Advocacy Center.

  • 2006-2012, Family Support

    Received a Children’s Trust Fund grant to provide more extensive parenting support to the families we were helping. This work was expanded with a state Proud Fathers grant in 2009.

  • 2007, Child Abuse Prevention

    Received first state of Michigan child abuse prevention grant (CHPR) and in 2008 received a Washtenaw County Department of Human Services grant for child abuse prevention (CAN).

  • 2011, Expansion

    Opened office in Jackson to strengthen families involved in Child Protective Services (Families Together Building Solutions).

  • 2012, Staff Changes

    Leslie Harrington steps down and Peri Stone-Palmquist starts as new Executive Director. Margaret Harner retires.

  • 2012, Dropout Prevention

    Student Advocacy Center receives funding to pilot a nationally-known, evidence-based dropout prevention model called Check and Connect.

  • 2013, Jackson Expansion, Fee-Based Pilot, Student Rights Project found

    Education advocacy is expanded into Jackson County, thanks to the Gerald Beckwith Constitutional Liberties Fund. SAC pilots a small fee-based advocacy program for middle- and high-income families in our region, to allow us to serve more families. SAC starts collaborating with students from University of Michigan Law School and School of Social Work to start a volunteer school discipline advocacy project called the Student Rights Project (which now includes the School of Education.

  • 2014, Wayne County Expansion, Youth Voice Starts

    Student Advocacy Center opens an office in Detroit to better serve Wayne County, thanks to the Carls Foundation. Student Advocacy Center launches Youth Voice Ypsilanti at Ypsilanti Community High School (winter of 2014) and participates in the youth-organized, historic civil rights march from Detroit to Lansing to end unjust suspensions (April of 2014). Youth Voice launches in T.A. Wilson Academy in Jackson in the fall of 2014.

  • 2015, Ingham County Expansion, Headquarters Move, Youth Action Michigan

    Student Advocacy Center launches a volunteer advocacy project in Ingham County. Our headquarters in Ypsilanti move downtown to 124 Pearl Street, Suite 504. Youth Voice formally becomes Youth Action Michigan.

  • 2016, Youth on Board

    For the first time, Student Advocacy Center brings youth onto our board of directors after a planning process that included The Corner Health Center and Neutral Zone. We start with two young adults, both who had received services through Student Advocacy Center.

  • August 1, 2017, Legislate Win

    After years of advocacy, Rethink Discipline Bills take effect, ending zero tolerance in Michigan.

  • September 2018, Check and Connect expands

    Student Advocacy Center adds a 2nd Ypsilanti site to Check and Connect, serving students in the Lincoln Consolidated Schools district.

  • October 2018, Story Soiree

    Student Advocacy Center has its first fundraiser in Detroit to support our growing work in Wayne County at the historic Kresge Mansion.

  • November 2019, Harvest Happy Hour

    Student Advocacy Center has its first fundraiser in Jackson.

  • Spring 2020, COVID-19

    Student Advocacy Center continues its hard work remotely, checking in on families by phone / Zoom, delivering items to homes and starting virtual support groups. We reschedule our annual storytelling fundraiser and stream a mix of live and pre-recorded stories on YouTube, where more than 190 joined in.