Finding room for troubled students

Board ponders expansion of alternative education

`You have to think differently'

About 2,000 students a year drop out or are kicked out

April 06, 2005|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Every year, enough students drop out of Anne Arundel County schools to fill a high school of their own, district officials say.

But there are few locations for specialized programs to address the varied needs of these teenagers.

"First and foremost it's a space factor," said Superintendent Eric J. Smith. "That really has kept us from moving forward."

School board members will hear about the county's alternative education services and current and future needs at its meeting today. A staff report, requested by board member Eugene Peterson, was prepared after he suggested during budget discussions that alternative education be expanded.

The board did not support the requests. Smith said he did not ask for operating dollars without space to house the programs.

Demand for alternative education increased with the passage of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which required that students who receive extended suspensions or expulsions attend programs during their sanction.

Right now, the focus of the school system's two largest alternative education programs - Mary E. Moss and J. Albert Adams academies - is on students who have been expelled or are serving extended suspensions. In Anne Arundel, expelled students are removed from their schools for 18 weeks.

However, school system administrators say they don't have enough room at the two academies for the nearly 750 students who receive such disciplinary sanctions each year. The schools serve about 350 students during both semesters.

Alternative education programs also can help students who are not successful in school, even if they don't have discipline problems.

For discipline "is how we're using it in Anne Arundel County, but that's not what alternative education is all about," said Kathy Lane, director of safe schools and alternative education.

Options are also available for those who need to earn credits for graduation or to make up courses they've failed.

But, she stressed, Anne Arundel also needs programs to prevent children in elementary school from dropping out in the future, she said. Last year, about 1,250 high school students failed to return to class - a population nearly equivalent to Southern High School in Harwood.

Anne Arundel's graduation rate of 83.35 percent - just under the state average - ranks 18th among Maryland's 24 school districts. Its dropout rate, 4.83 percent, is the state's fourth highest.

Using factors such as attendance, chronic disruption and academic performance, Lane said, "you can pretty accurately predict your dropouts by third grade."

To find more space, the school system has looked at the former Crownsville hospital site and space in strip malls, but, Smith said, "nothing seems appropriate at this time."

Lane said the school system has found some smaller places.

For example, the Severn Alternative Academy opened in 2004 in Meade Village, sharing space in a townhouse with an Anne Arundel County police substation as part of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s Collaborative Supervision and Focused Enforcement initiative, which targets specific neighborhoods for additional police visibility.

About 18 middle and high school students from Pioneer City or Meade Village took classes last semester at Severn Alternative Academy during their suspensions or expulsions. Eight use the service now. Lane said the school system might expand to the county's other CSAFE locations in Brooklyn Heights and Parole.

"Like charter schools, we have to be very creative," she said. "You have to think differently."

At a recent focus group meeting, Lane also suggested that basing smaller programs at traditional high schools could be an option.

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