COVINGTON — The Newton County School System hopes to produce more graduates with its new alternative school program.

Samantha Fuhrey, executive director of Secondary Education at NCSS, recently informed the Newton County Board of Education that system officials are identifying more high school dropouts and those at risk for not graduating and trying to encourage them to enroll in the Ombudsman program.

Ombudsman, which is located on the Bypass Road in Covington, is the private company being used by NCSS for the first time this school year to run the alternative program. The school board made the decision last year to outsource its alternative education program to save nearly $2 million and, hopefully, see more positive academic results than with Sharp Learning Center.

Currently, about 140 students are enrolled in the program, which serves middle and high school students.

Fuhrey expects the program, which is budgeted for a maximum of 200 students this year, to grow because of a push for finding students at risk of not graduating, although she doesn’t have any concrete figures yet.

“The number of students utilizing the Ombudsman program as a non-traditional path to graduation fluctuates based upon our efforts to identify candidates and enrollment of students new to the district,” Fuhrey said.

She said graduation coaches, counselors and the English as a Second Language coordinator are finding and talking to students who dropped out or who are thinking of dropping out and informing them of the option to enroll in Ombudsman.

“We have reviewed lists of students who have been withdrawn with a state-identified drop-out code,” Fuhrey said.

Additionally, system staff members are discussing the Ombudsman option with current students who many not earn credit this year and are considering dropping out, as well as talking about Ombudsman with the Juvenile Court system, the Division of Family and Children Services and other community agencies.

“We are working diligently to decrease the rate that students are dropping out by offering them a non-traditional option via the Ombudsman program,” Fuhrey said.

They also identify overaged middle school students and offer them a chance to catch up on classes at Ombudsman so they can be placed in a high school at the appropriate age. Some 16-year-old students are allowed to enroll in the eighth grade, Fuhrey said, but others may have to participate in the program.
“Students of this age are already at risk of not completing high school,” she said.

Several school board members said they have heard “good things” about the program.

“I’ve got a lot of positive responses from students there,” said school board member Almond Turner. “I think we’re doing a good thing.”

Ombudsman students attend three- or four-hour sessions each weekday, and about 70 percent of the curriculum is computer-based with the other portion being teacher-led instruction and remediation.

Before the program opened last year, Ombudsman representatives reported that 85 percent of its students graduate from the program, successfully return to their home schools or complete an enrollment period with Ombudsman. Overall, students improved in math, vocabulary, spelling and reading, according to entry and exit exams at its programs in about 25 school systems and nearly 50 sites in Georgia.

Last semester, about 60 percent of about 200 students were transitioned back to their home schools after following the school’s behavior expectations, attendance policy, center rules and passing a majority of their courses, Ombudsman officials reported in January.

For the 2009-10 school year, the failure rate for Sharp students on state-required End of Course Tests were between 53 and 93 percent. The failure rate for the middle school Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests were between 24 and 93 percent, NCSS reported.

The overall graduation rate for NCSS in 2011 was 85 percent, according to the Georgia Department of Education. That is up from 84.2 percent last school year, up about 2 percent from the previous year and up more than 28 percent from seven and eight years ago.