Center expands its reach

Administrators expect new daytime hours will draw more at-risk students to system's alternative program

Education Beat

December 25, 2005|By CASSANDRA A. FORTIN | CASSANDRA A. FORTIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Kaleigh Moffitt felt out of place at C. Milton Wright High School.

She had too much down time. The school was crowded, and it seemed that her teachers didn't have time to give her the extra help she desired. Her grades suffered, and she wanted to quit school.

She went to the principal, who recommended an evening program with a lower student-teacher ratio that offered more individualized learning. Kaleigh decided to give it a try.

This year, she's a senior on the honor roll and plans to attend college to become a nurse.

Kaleigh attends the school system's Alternative Education program, which is designed for at-risk students. The students might have academic difficulties, family problems or they might have had a run-in with the law, said Mark Buzminsky, principal of the Center for Educational Opportunity in Aberdeen, where the classes are held.

In its fourth year, the program has been expanded and is expected to serve more students than in any previous year. The program served at least 180 students a year since its inception in the 2002-2003 school year. As in earlier years, enrollment in the fall is lower than at the end of the year. Last year, the program had 50 students at the start of the school year and 214 by the end.

This year, the first in which a daytime program has been offered, 14 teachers were hired to teach 130 students, a number expected to increase to 220 by the end of the school year.

The Maryland State Department of Education doesn't provide a statewide design for alternative programs, allowing each district to tailor programs for the students in its jurisdiction.

In Harford, the program started as an evening program. But when the school system received full funding last year for the current school year, administrators decided to implement a daytime program with the hope of meeting the needs of more students.

"The county had a need for starting a day program," Buzminsky said. "Many of these kids work and would drop out of school if they didn't have this program to attend."

The premise of the program is to allow students to attend school during the day Monday through Thursday. On Fridays, students can receive tutoring and teachers can work on planning. Students take eight yearlong courses - four each on alternating days - to earn eight credits per year. Courses include the core subjects of English, math, science and social studies, as well as electives, such as Spanish, speech, journalism, art and physical education.

"Many of the kids are here voluntarily. But some were suspended for disciplinary action, and this is their last chance and only choice," he said.

Students can also choose when and if they are ready to go back to their original school. But many stay in the alternative program even after they have been cleared to move on.

That was the case with Kaleigh.

"This place is so joyful," she said. "It's easier to focus, and there isn't a lot of drama and down time. When I started here it didn't take me a week to adjust. I'm finishing high school here. This is my happily ever after."

In some cases, the students fell behind in earning academic credits. The school is the only location in the county with online computer courses that students can take to complete or make up a missed course. That's what helped junior Jamie Kloch catch up.

Jamie was put on long-term suspension and placed in the program. Her grades have improved, and she will graduate with her class next year.

"Joppatowne High School had too much drama," Jamie said. "I was getting bad grades and getting in a lot of trouble. I had to retake some classes, but I'm getting caught up finally. This is a lot easier. I have fewer distractions."

The key is the individualized attention, said English teacher Ann Cymek, who came out of retirement last year to join the program. She had worked 36 years for Baltimore County schools.

She said students excel because they know the teachers care.

After years of teaching gifted and talented classes, Cymek decided those students didn't need her as much as at-risk kids, and the alternative education program seemed the right fit.

"I feel like a mom here," Cymek said. "I watch the kids just blossom when I tell them, `Your hair looks great today.' They are so grateful even for the little things. They know we care, and they respond to it."

Ryan Johnson, a freshman from Edgewood, said he found the program to be easier to adjust to because of the support from teachers.

"I was failing at Edgewood, and I needed some help," he said. "I came here, and it's helping me. I like it and not because I get to wake up later and go to school four days a week. I tell all my friends they need to come here. Even though I messed up, this is my chance to get back on track."

Another student said he found that although attending the program prohibits him from participating in sports, improving his grades and staying out of trouble is more important.

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