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From 15 students to 150: Decatur school district considers changes, expansion of alternative education program
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From 15 students to 150: Decatur school district considers changes, expansion of alternative education program

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DECATUR — The Decatur Board of Education could vote next month on a set of comprehensive changes to the district's alternative education program that would expand the number of students reached. 

The board on Tuesday heard recommendations from the committee that has been working for a year and a half to create the plan. The new program, which replaces the existing Phoenix Academy, is in addition to care rooms offered at schools throughout the district to address less severe behavioral issues that arise during the school day. The new program would include services for elementary students, who are not served by current programs. 

The revamping of alternative education is necessary because there are students who simply aren't successful in traditional settings, said Superintendent Paul Fregeau. The changes are part of the district's five-year strategic plan, a wide-ranging set of goals unveiled last year that focuses on addressing the whole student and making Decatur a destination district for parents. 

"We can't set kids up to be failures when they leave the district," he said, citing statistics that show that a person without a high school diploma is twice as likely to be unemployed as a person who has a diploma, and post-secondary education increases employment and income levels drastically. More than 80 percent of those incarcerated are high school dropouts, he added, and those without diplomas cost taxpayers more than $292,000 each over the course of their lifetimes.

If approved by the board, the revamped alternative education program will be housed at Harris School beginning in August. Students now assigned to Harris will be sent to Hope Academy. Harris is also the building where special education students with the most profound needs are often assigned, particularly if they have mobility issues, and steps are being taken to find other placements for them, with every effort being made to keep those students together. 

The recommendation includes:

  • Morning and afternoon sessions for high school sophomores, juniors and seniors that are credit-driven, focused on catching them up and getting them to graduation;
  • Full-day sessions for high school freshmen and middle school students;
  • Full-day sessions, beginning and ending at slightly earlier times than older students, for students in kindergarten through sixth grade;
  • A late afternoon program to meet the needs of students for whom that is the best option;
  • Suspension school for students suspended for three days or longer, to keep them from falling behind;
  • A simpler referral program, including the option for parents to request placement of their child in alternative education;
  • A staff that includes a social worker, behavior interventionist, family liaison, counselor, nurse, teaching assistants and teachers, all trained in trauma-informed practices. 

Board member Kendall Briscoe described the alternative education changes as a game-changer for the district.

“This is going to help our kids in a way that we’re not able to right now,” she said.

Briscoe, who was elected to the board in April 2017, said the most heartbreaking part of the position has been having to make decisions about whether to expel students.

In many cases, she said, the student had been in the district’s alternative education programs and described a positive experience. The problems generally arose after he or she returned to the general student population.

“The children knew that they needed to be somewhere that they weren’t,” Briscoe said.

One concern that board member Courtney Carson voiced was the difficulty of fully staffing the district now. An alternative program with such high staffing needs could be a problem as far as finding and hiring the people necessary, he said, asking Fregeau if that had been discussed by the committee.

"We have to find, recruit and hire people," Fregeau said. "Some people have a heart for this, plus you’ll have support. You have to find people who have a heart for helping these kids. I’m not going to tell you it’s s going to be easy to find these people, but that’s our vision for how we should staff it and we’re going to recruit hard to that." 

Committee member Eldon Conn, principal of South Shores School, said he believed that the fact that Decatur schools will have such a program will draw the candidates necessary. "If I didn't have a job I love, and a staff I love and children I love (at South Shores), I'd be interested," Conn said.

The district's current alternative ed staffing includes an administrator, five teachers, three teaching assistants, a secretary and security. The cost is roughly $450,000, or $30,091 per student with 15 students in the program, Conn said.

New staffing would include more teachers, assistants and other personnel, for an estimated cost of $1.4 million per year, according to the presentation. It would also serve an estimated 150 students, working out to a cost of $9,445 per student.

"We as a committee know that we need to serve more students, specifically elementary," Conn said. "We need to open the program, provide spots for kids who need it, who aren’t getting what they need in a traditional environment." 

The program's name is also important, Fregeau said. The committee agreed on "Learning Support Center," but have not settled on the rest of it yet. Choices under consideration include keeping the William Harris name, with Learning Support Center added; naming it after some other person; or using a positive term as was chosen for Hope Academy, for example, but always with Learning Support Center attached. 

"How we label it, how we brand it, is important for getting it off the ground," Fregeau said. 

The board is expected to vote on the proposal Feb. 12. 

Contact Valerie Wells at (217) 421-7982. Follow her on Twitter: @modgirlreporter

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