Students who had nearly given up now find reasons to stay in class

Six months after opening a new alternative school program for students with discipline problems, the Clarke County School District is beginning to see some promising results.

Though administrators don’t yet have test scores to show how much students are learning at the three schools operated by Ombudsman Educational Services, students who had nearly given up on school are back in class and many of them say they are thinking more about education as a key to their future.
Joshua Scott, 18, is one of those students.

Scott, a former student at Cedar Shoals High School, was once in a world of trouble. He was in and out of school, arrested for burglary and fighting. Now, he’s getting paid for tutoring younger students in reading and math, and thinking about graduating from high school next semester.

“I ain’t getting in no more trouble or anything like that,” said Scott, who is thinking one day of going to veterinary school or becoming an electrician. “It feels good to get money the legit way.”

Joshua Scott, right, watches while Gear Storm works on algebra problems Friday at an alternative school run by Ombudsman Educational Services in Athens. Photo: David Manning

Joshua Scott, right, watches while Gear Storm works on algebra
problems Friday at an alternative school run by Ombudsman
Educational Services in Athens. Photo: David Manning

A year ago, Scott was enrolled in the school district’s now-defunct SOAR Academy – a punitive alternative school housed in an outdated, rundown building on the H.T. Edwards campus in West Athens.

In a budget-cutting move, the school district closed the school and signed a contract with Ombudsman, a Tennessee company that runs alternative schools and has had a proven track record of helping some of the most unruly or struggling students succeed in a non-traditional classroom.

Most students who attend Ombudsman do so after they violate serious school rules, like fighting or bringing drugs or weapons to school. Students are monitored and if they show enough progress with behavior and grades, may be eligible to return to traditional middle and high schools.

The three Ombudsman schools, housed in strip malls, allow students work on their own at computer terminals and put the onus on the students to come to school and complete their work.

So far this year, the schools enrolled 159 students and only 11 have dropped out. Student attendance is also up – at SOAR, one student had missed 87 days of school, but at Ombudsman she has missed less than 10, according to Ombudsman directors.

Thirty-five students have also been placed with job mentors or coaches in positions where they are learning not only soft skills like punctuality and communication, but how a salon, factory, restaurant or the school district’s transportation office operate.

The better physical facilities are a big improvement over the old SOAR campus, said one student, Kadeem McGriff, 18.

“You can focus more and have a lot more opportunities. … It’s giving me a lot of hope for the future,” he said.

McGriff attended the former alternative school – which was more like a jail than a school. It was full of police officers, metal detectors, orders and pat-downs, said McGriff’s mother, Vella Pinnick.

“It was more like preparing your child to go to prison,” Pinnick said. “It was nasty in there. It just seemed like an old jail house for kids. It was mentally telling them they’re criminals, basically. At Ombudsman it’s not like that – they feel special over there.”

At Ombudsman centers, students don’t have to go through metal detectors or receive a pat-down from a police officer, and they attend classes in small groups rather than in traditional classes.

“They end up liking to come to school again,” said Sean Simpson, who directs the Ombudsman site off Barnett Shoals Road in Southeastern Clarke County.

Some students are even choosing to stay at the school instead of returning to their regular high school, or are requesting to attend an Ombudsman site because they know they can be successful there, according to Ernest Hardaway, who as deputy superintendent had been in charge of assigning students to the SOAR Academy.

Students may decide to attend an Ombudsman school to help them complete high school, or if they improve their behavior and grades, can decide to go back to traditional high school.

“It gives these kids more ownership in being there,” Hardaway said. “They know if they don’t want to be there, they can get up and walk out that door – that no one is going to physically restrain you or refrain you from going home.”

 Donna Wagman embraces her son, Caleb, at the school.And of the more than 100 students who were considered dropouts in the 2009-10 school year, 25 of the 52 that have returned to the school district are attending Ombudsman sites.

While anecdotally the schools have helped steer many students onto the right track, it’s not a silver bullet for turning around every teen who struggles, according to Hardaway.

“We’ve had some kids say, ‘It’s not for me, I don’t want to go,’ ” Hardaway said. “It’s not a cure-all, but for more kids than not, it has worked. If kids are given an opportunity to work, which gives them more responsibility, then they’ll probably be more engaged, and that has worked.”

The system does face one big obstacle: Since most of the course work is done online, students have to have some reading skills.

To improve students’ literacy – or at least get them reading on a second-grade level – the students need more trained reading coaches or tutors and an extra reading program to provide more one-on-one help, he said.

“If we could afford it, it be great to have that additional intervention so we could give them more of what they need to be better readers,” he said.