Schools saves district money, tries to educate unruly students instead of leaving them behind

Clarksdale, Miss. student and teacher

Clarksdale, Miss. student and teacher

A little over a year after its debut, city superintendent Dennis Dupree says the school district’s alternative education program is a success.
Dupree says that the program, run by Ombudsman, a private company, saves the district about $400,000 per year while getting more students out the door with an education.

The program is housed in the Thomas E. Shaw School of Excellence, the district’s traditional alternative educational facility. But unlike a traditional school or even a traditional alternative school, the Ombudsman school has only three teachers and rows and rows of computers. Each of the computers is plugged into curriculum programs tailored to fit each of the 40 students’ educational needs.

Those needs are vast. The students range from sixth graders to high school students, so hiring individual teachers would have been costly, and Lucinda Carter believes, unnecessary.

Carter is the director of Ombudsman at Thomas E. Shaw. Carter, like her staff, is a retired public school educator. She was a superintendent at North Panola and a principal, and she said she can tell when kids learn, and they’re learning with the computer programs.

“You ought to see the excitement in my face when they get it. It’s like a light bulb going off,” she said.

Shirley Saddler, a 30-year veteran of the city’s high school and an Ombudsman teacher, said she agrees that the students in the Ombudsman program are learning. The computerized, specialty curriculum helps, but Saddler said that Carter has made an effort to get parents involved in their child’s education, and that’s also shown some success.

Saddler said that in September, Carter invited all the parents to come to Shaw to meet her, and most came out.

“I won’t say every parent showed up that day, but we had a pretty good number,” Saddler said. “We had door prizes, and Ms. Cater went through what she expected of the students and the parents. We had some supportive parents, and we’ve had some parents will come in [to class] and sit with their students.”

She added that it’s important that parents hear positive things, too.

“I think we need to have a good relationship with the parents or guardians,” she said. “Sometimes if we could just make a phone call that’s not negative, but to say something positive, that makes a difference.”

The students’ progress is monitored through the program by teachers, who can log on and check the time each student spent on a section and see how well he or she did. If a student gets a 90 on an assignment, the program rewards students with cartoon apples.

“I’ll hear students ask each other, ‘How many apples did you get today? I got seven,’” she said.

“The computer praises them and we praise them,” Carter said. “So it’s really, really good.”

The program logs the hours spent at each subject—and subjects range from traditional English, math and science, to elective courses including art history and music. Each teacher is responsible for 11 or 12 students, so even though the students sit and work quietly at computer terminals for the majority of the day, a teacher is often nearby, available for advice, encouragement or discipline.

Carter is new, just hired this year. But she said her first three months have been good.

“Before I came here, people would say that nobody could stay here because the kids are so bad,” she said. “But that’s not true. … It’s a good, good environment. It’s quiet. Regardless of the gangs, and I know who’s in the gangs. But that’s an afterschool activity. They don’t do that here.”

Some of the students get sent to the Ombudsman program as a last resort. After committing some serious offense against school rules — bringing drugs to school, or repeated violence, say—students could get expelled or put on long term suspension and sent to Ombudsman as a way to continue their education outside of the normal school environment. But the program is also designed to help students who have fallen behind catch up.

City superintendent Dupree said that some of the students have fallen behind two grades, and he gave the example of a 17-year-old student, stuck in a freshman high school class.

“What is the likelihood of that child finishing with a traditional high school diploma,” Dupree asked. “Whereas that kid could go to Ombudsman, and go for a year and a half, and graduate with an Ombudsman diploma.”

That diploma isn’t the same as regular high school diploma that requires students to have passed the state’s standardized test, but it is accepted at a growing number of universities and community colleges.

Linda Downing, the district’s director of secondary curriculum, said she’s met with representatives from Coahoma Community College, Northwest Community College, Rust College and the University of Mississippi and all those institutions accept students with an Ombudsman diploma.

Of course, students can also use Ombudsman to catch up to their classmates and graduate with them, and some leave the program and take the GED. Saddler said one of her students got expelled from the city’s high school in his senior year. He took the Ombudsman course, left and got his GED and now he’s in college.

College is something else the Ombudsman kids learn about. Carter said her students are given college handbooks, and the program invites speakers from area colleges to come in and talk to her students.

“We push them,” Carter said. “You’re here. Make the best use of your time. You don’t want to be on the street. You don’t want to be in jail. You need to do this program so you can go to college.”

So far, the program graduated two students last year, and Carter said they expect to graduate five more in May.

She said there’s no secret to teaching kids, even troubled or at risk kids.

“Our main goal is that everyone’s successful,” she said. “We don’t have time to play and get into scuffles and all that. We focus on the task at hand so they don’t have time to do anything but focus on their work.”