Charleston County's alternative education programs for misbehaving students will undergo some dramatic changes this year.
The overhaul includes a reorganization of district offices and touches programs across the county, including the district's discipline school in North Charleston.
The ultimate goal is to increase students' success, or graduate more students. Officials also hope to see more students return to their neighborhood schools and fewer suspensions and expulsions.
"I think this is part of the continued evolution of our approach to providing a continuum of supports and services," said school Superintendent Nancy McGinley. "We're moving more strategically to a broader menu of services."
Impetus for change
As the district's chief academic officer, McGinley created the Office of Prevention and Intervention to oversee programs for students with behavior problems. This new realignment of district offices takes that effort to the next level and should lead to more collaboration, a mutual focus and a more strategic approach to serving those students, said Lisa Herring, the district's executive director of student support services.
"That alignment is a powerful process -- the power of bringing all of our resources together," she said.
The district hired Herring in December after searching for someone who could redesign its programs, execute changes already in the works, and compile comprehensive recommendations on its alternative education services, McGinley said.
The district has made progress, evidenced by the percentage of students who were suspended dropping by 20 percent in the past six years, and the number of suspensions falling by almost 6,000 to 12,412. But the district still can improve, and that factor has led to a number of changes that students and parents will see this year.
The district has struggled to figure out how to best serve students who have been recommended for expulsion. The board hired a for-profit company to run its discipline school, but it abandoned the contract in 2008 after it saw little to no academic growth in students.
The district took over the program in 2008-09, and officials have continued altering its structure since then. School Board Chairwoman Ruth Jordan said she's been concerned about this program for years, and feels as if the district's leadership continues reinventing the wheel instead of making it work.
"I'm hopeful but I'm skeptical and I'm waiting to see," she said. "It's better, but it's still not right."
The latest program adjustments stem from a task force of middle school principals who were receiving the majority of students coming out of Daniel Jenkins in North Charleston. They weren't happy about students' lack of academic growth as well as the school's limited ability to serve more types of students, McGinley said. She's confident the new program design will address those issues and make it as effective as possible.
"We're always going to continue to tweak and improve it," she said.
The school no longer will accept high school students and instead will be a site exclusively for middle school students. That will enable it to serve a wider spectrum of students, which means not everyone referred to the school will have the most serious behavior problems. Students will be separated according to the seriousness of their behavior issues, which will ensure they receive the most appropriate services and don't negatively effect one another's classrooms, McGinley said.
The school will be renamed Daniel Jenkins Creative Learning Academy, a move intended to reflect the new school's new culture and lessen any potential negative connotation associated with the school. Physical education and arts-infused technology will be added to the curriculum, and the school will offer mentoring and service-learning opportunities.
"Alternative is not negative," Herring said. "It is simply that -- an opportunity to provide something other than a traditional setting for academic success."
The school can enroll between 180 and 200 students at a time, but not all students referred to the program will be required to stay an entire year. The school will employ two full-time transition specialists who will work with students on returning to their neighborhood school, and more certified teachers will be available to help students.
All of the changes were made within the district's existing budget, which means some staff members were not rehired for this fall. The school also will have a new principal, Jennifer Coker, former principal of West Ashley Middle.
High school students
Officials recognized they had limited options for misbehaving high school students, so they decided to create a new program, Twilight, and expand an existing one, Summit, this fall.
The Twilight program is a non- traditional, computer-based classroom that will be at 10 of the district's 13 high schools and operate between noon and 7 p.m. daily. It's not intended for students recommended for expulsion; rather, it's an alternative for students with less- serious behavior problems, Herring said. Examples include students who are truant or are consistently suspended.
Officials modeled the program based on research and on the existence of similar programs elsewhere that have shown success. Each site will have a teacher, student concern specialist, assistant principal, and guidance counselor dedicated to the program. Students will be able to receive direct instruction when appropriate, and they will remain separated from the rest of the student body. Up to 200 students at a time would have this option of staying at their neighborhood school and earning credits, Herring said.
The other alternative will be the Summit program, which also is a computer-based credit program. The difference is that these students have been recommended for expulsion and may be at a greater risk for dropping out, and the program, which previously had been housed at Daniel Jenkins Academy, will move to West Ashley High. That move is being made so middle and high school students will be separated, and so the program will have more space to serve more students. Officials estimate it could enroll up to 80 students at a time.
The district has a broad, three-year plan to phase in more changes for alternative education programs. It will look at what can be done in the elementary grades and try to develop a continuum of services for behavior assessment, support and placement.
In the meantime, the district will evaluate students' progress this year and make adjustments, if necessary.
"This year, it's definitely not hands off," Herring said. "It's a deliberate assessment of what do we see and where do we need to make changes."