Troubled students may get $7.6M school

For years, the Charleston County School District has struggled with developing a plan for how to best serve its most vulnerable high school students.

"We've been looking at data for several years on high school students and why we're still not reaching a group of students based on our graduation rates," said Principal Jennifer Coker, who serves on the district's Alternative Education Planning Team. "Our hope is to capture that group of students who aren't functioning in that traditional high school setting."

In a new plan unveiled last week to the Charleston County School Board's Strategic Education Committee, district officials laid out a new vision for alternative education, which includes a $7.6 million building behind Daniel Jenkins Creative Learning Center in North Charleston.

The concept expands on a smaller-scale proposal tabled by the School Board last year that sought to establish a new alternative high school program in North Charleston and West Ashley. At the time, board members said they wanted more data on the district's existing alternative education programs, while others said they wanted to see the district better use those options before opening another facility.

Some School Board members feared a new program would just be viewed as a "dumping ground" for challenging students.

But Associate Superintendent James Winbush assured the committee the district's latest proposal would offer a comprehensive and rigorous curriculum aimed at engaging struggling students. The school would offer a blended learning style which combines traditional teaching with targeted use of computer programs and other technology. Students would also receive career and technology-based education with the option to earn professional certificates or licenses.

"We don't want a school that kids just go to and we're throwing them away and they just sit there," Winbush said. "We want them to be re-engaged in school. We want them to have academic success."

The new school, dubbed Charleston Turning Point Academy, would serve up to 200 students in grades 9-12 on property adjacent to Daniel Jenkins, the district's alternative program for younger students which serves grades 5-8. Students who have been recommended for expulsion would be one of the target populations for the new high school. The school would be open to students who have other problems, such as those who have fallen behind in high school credits, are overage for their grade, are pregnant or are at risk for dropping out. The district has identified as many as 600 students who would fall into one of those categories.

High-schoolers who attend the new school would not be placed there, Winbush said. Instead, students who are expelled could choose to enroll there, as could students who are struggling in a traditional classroom setting. Parents or neighborhood schools could also request a referral. Students could remain at Charleston Turning Point Academy to earn a diploma or they could petition their constituent school board to return to their neighborhood school.

The new facility would also offer a centralized office for all of the district's alternative and adult education services, where Winbush said a "triage team" would assess which program would fit a student's needs. The new building would also offer classroom space where parents could bring students to serve multiple-day suspensions under the supervision of district staff.

The new academy would also offer flexible scheduling for students who work, and day care for students who have children.

"A lot of kids don't finish school because of outside pressures," said Coker, who is the principal at Daniel Jenkins. "It's about being able to help them do both."

The district would use some existing staffing at Daniel Jenkins, but another $1.84 million in new positions would be needed to fully staff the new facility. Acting Superintendent Michael Bobby said the district is still developing a funding proposal. Some revenue for school operations could come from the school district's operating budget, as well as federal funds tied to students from low-income families.

Bobby said he believes the cost is worth the end goal.

"The whole point is we know we have students that have unique needs," Bobby said.

The district will present the new plan to the full School Board at a workshop in the next month. Reaction from board members on the Strategic Education Committee has been mixed.

School Board member Chris Collins said he's uncomfortable with the multimillion dollar price tag on the project, saying he thinks the district can serve these students by beefing up targeted programs in traditional schools. He also worries principals and teachers would be more inclined to refer challenging students to Charleston Turning Point Academy instead of trying to serve them in a traditional classroom setting.

"This would be another avenue to quickly eliminate students who can improve in time with consistent discipline ... in normal schools," he said.

School Board member Kate Darby said she also worried about funding, but that she thinks the proposal would offer more opportunities for alternative education for high school students. Darby said she would like to see if there might be a way to start the high school using space inside Daniel Jenkins while the district phases in the new school.

"I really like the concept," she said. "We've go too many kids dropping out of high school. We've got to do things differently. We've got to meet those needs. Those kinds of programs in schools are necessary."