They were celebrating the grand opening of the new privately operated, computer-based Ombudsman schools, which have replaced the district’s old alternative school at Scott Learning Center. For years the district was accused of warehousing hard-to handle students at Scott and leaving them without the proper tools or support to overcome their behavioral and academic issues. This year they are counting on the private company to achieve breakthroughs with students the district has failed to reach.
“This is probably the most important decision we’ve made since I’ve been on the board,” said Savannah-Chatham Public School Board President Joe Buck. “Students sent to Scott were not getting the educational services they deserved.”
The public school system paid Educational Services of America $1.415 million to replace the full-day alternative education program at Scott with half day Ombudsman School programs for middle and high school students who were suspended or expelled for a semester or more. The company received an additional $670,000 to assist the district with a full-day Ombudsman School for middle grades students who have been held back at least twice.
In the next room dozens of students who have been suspended or expelled from regular public schools sat quietly at computer terminals working on what they’ve been told will, “tap into their learning spots,” turn them around and put them on track for graduation.
Sophomore Kiante Williams was enrolled at Scott for a year and a half. She said she is pleased with what she has experienced during the first two weeks at the Ombudsman school.
“It’s way better,” she said. “I don’t get treated like I’m in prison, getting patted down and searched every morning. Here my past is my past. It’s like a second chance.”
The Ombudsman School model for alternative school success is to set up computer terminals in a storefront location so students feel like they’re going to work, not school. When they login they work at their own pace through a series of computer learning programs designed to enhance their reading comprehension, build basic academic skills and allow them to complete the academic courses they need to progress academically.
“Here we are more focused because learning is more interesting on computers,” said Jowond Brown, a sophomore who was at Scott for three years. “The Reading Plus program makes you read to get through the problems. With books you can just flip through and find the answers.” Teachers work one on one with students who need help and lead the students in traditional lessons and projects as well.
“What we’ve found is that students with behavior issues were either bored or felt stupid because they couldn’t keep up,” said Mark Claypool, CEO of Educational Services of America, the company running the district’s new alternative schools. “…Every student here is working on their own customized learning plan. They’ll all be tested and measured on the same standards as every other student in the district and take the same state tests; it’s how they get there that’s different and it’s what we know works.”
But it’s all crammed into a short amount of time. Middle grades classes run from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. High School classes run from 2:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Youth Futures Authority Executive Director Edward Chisolm said he is hopeful the change in atmosphere and academic approach will help reduce the number of students who are suspended and expelled from local public schools.
“That’s a long time for students to be on their own,” he said. “I’ll be looking to see if the kids can get back on track and excel when they get back to their home schools. That’s the big question.”
About 500 students are assigned to alternative school throughout the year. In previous years the transition from regular to alternative school typically resulted in students being held back a year for missing too many tests and days of instruction. But Chisolm said he is concerned that the program’s half day schedule will leave these at risk students with too much idle time on their hands.
Joey Morris, a ninth grader, said he is happy because he can sleep until noon, brush up on basic skills and focus on improving in his worst subject — biology.
“I’m learning more here,” he said. “They definitely tapped into my learning spot.”