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Alternative school proposed to expand

Plan calls for full-length day school, night program

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Posted: September 4, 2014 8:12 p.m.
Updated: September 4, 2014 8:09 p.m.
Alternative school proposed to expand

Transition Learning Center teacher Lisa Griffin works one-on-one with students Wednesday.

After recent violent crimes implicating teenagers and reports by law enforcement that gangs are active here, Bulloch County Schools officials are speeding up plans for a full-day alternative school. A night-school session also is proposed.

At the Aug. 28 Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Charles Wilson said he recently had become aware of rapid changes occurring.

"If we don't have a plan at the school system and the community level, we're going to have some serious unknown and probably detrimental consequences to our mission, as well as some things in the quality of life in this community," Wilson said.

School system staff members, he said, were proposing a "combination solution," short-term for the remainder of the school year and long-term for beyond.

Dr. Mary Felton, the district's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, and Tim Rountree, the administrator of Transitions Learning Center, presented the short-term component, centered on the proposal to expand TLC, Bulloch County's alternative school, to a full day.

In fact, Felton and Rountree had started discussing this soon after Felton arrived on the job in February. But they were aiming for a January 2015 implementation until events in the community prompted moving the target date up to Oct. 1, Felton said in an interview this week.

"Just because of some things starting to develop, and wanting to be proactive, we decided to push it ahead and try to get it started a little earlier," she said. "But no, it's not because of what happened in the neighborhood. It's just because we think it's what's needed for the students of Bulloch County."

Simply from an educational standpoint, Felton said, she did not like the half-time alternative school program and the way it keeps students, especially middle school students, in school for less than a full day.

Half-day sessions
Transitions Learning Center, in the William James Educational Complex that also houses the board offices, currently operates two half-day sessions. Students are assigned to one session or the other and attend classes for three hours, before or after lunch.

Each session includes classes for students in grades six through 12. The teachers are certified but teach multiple subjects, not just those they are certified to teach.

Despite being for students who have gotten into trouble and often are behind in their course requirements, TLC has no counselor. Counted as a program rather than a separate school, it is not required to have one.

The proposal would change all this, creating a full-day program and adding a counselor. The counselor would help students learn coping skills and prepare to transition from the small classes and highly structured alternative environment back to their regular schools and also could create support groups for various problems, Felton said.

By going to a full-day program, TLC also would add a certified math teacher and so have one teacher in each of the core subjects: science, social studies, English and math. This, Rountree said, should help students graduate or at least "get back on track" faster.

"In my opinion, this is something that we've needed for a long time," he said.

Felton and Rountree's plan also would add a two-hour, Monday-through-Thursday night school, which they said mainly would be for students ages 17 to 19. General education students who haven't graduated "age out" of school the year they turn 20; special education students, at 22.

The administrators presented the plan with a rough estimated cost of $165,840, but this included only average salary and benefits for the math teacher and counselor, plus part-time hourly pay for two night-session teachers.

No costs had been determined for a potential night-school administrator or a lunch program, for which food would be provided from another school's kitchen. Board members asked for better cost figures.

A board vote to hire the personnel was slated for Sept. 25 in the proposal, and Felton said she may have improved estimates for the board next week.

New consequences
Felton also proposed new "student behaviors and consequences," rules for how students can be placed in TLC and for how long.

Students can be placed in the alternative program by hearing, waiver, Department of Juvenile Justice recommendation, special education placement or transfer from an alternative program in another county.

The proposal would make the minimum stay one semester on the first offense, one year on a second offense and a minimum of one year to a maximum of two years on a third offense. A fourth offense would bring expulsion from the regular schools and the TLC day program, but the student could attend the night school.

A hearing officer would determine whether a student arrested for or convicted of a felony would be expelled permanently, "with or without the option" to attend the TLC day or night program.
The same would apply to a student determined on preponderance of the evidence "to be affiliated with a gang or gang-like association."

Currently, TLC typically has 40 to 50 students at a time and 200 to 225 over the course of a year. Rountree said these numbers might decrease because of the new procedures.

Longer term
For the long-term component, Wilson said he will name a committee, likely to be led by the school board chairman, vice chairman and one other member, to seek community input, consider alternative programs that work elsewhere and report back to him.

For both the short- and long-term, he said, the school system wants to protect the learning environment for students who want to learn but will remove those "who have clearly violated expectations, rights, norms" in order to protect that environment. The alternative school program, Wilson said, is for a middle group, students who are at risk but still can get an education.

"We're serious about protecting the learning environment, but we're also serious about providing a learning environment for those students who are at risk," Wilson said.

As previously reported in the Statesboro Herald, Statesboro Police Department and Bulloch County Sheriff's Office spokesmen confirmed gang activity here in 2014 and previous years. They have not linked the gangs publicly to any recent major crimes.

Wilson and Board of Education members Steve Hein and Vernon Littles attended a recent vigil for homicide victim Eric Alexander Reese, 46, where participants voiced concerns about local youth and crime. Board member-elect Glennera Martin also was there and helped organize the vigil.

Reese was shot Aug. 15 at Park Place Apartments. Statesboro police charged Lester Parrish, 17, with murder and arrested three other 17-year-olds and three 16-year-olds on lesser charges in connection with that day's events.

Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.

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