Dr. Steve Wilmoth, Seneca R-7 Superintendent cuts the ribbon at the Ombudsman Alternative School open house, as Allison O'Neill, Ombudsman Chief Operating Officer, and Josh Dodson, Seneca Chamber of Commerce President, stand on either side of him. The new alternative school held a ribbon cutting and open house Wednesday evening.  Photo credit: Neosho Daily News

Dr. Steve Wilmoth, Seneca R-7 Superintendent cuts the ribbon at the Ombudsman Alternative School open house, as Allison O’Neill, Ombudsman Chief Operating Officer, and Josh Dodson, Seneca Chamber of Commerce President, stand on either side of him. The new alternative school held a ribbon cutting and open house Wednesday evening.
Photo credit: Neosho Daily News

Seneca, Mo. — Residents had the opportunity to check out the latest addition to downtown Seneca Wednesday afternoon at the Ombudsman Alternative school open house and ribbon cutting.

The school, which opened in January, offers an alternate route for 30 at-risk students in the Seneca R-7 school district to work their way toward a high school diploma. Students in grades six and up are eligible for the program.

Split into two sessions, a morning class that goes from 8 a.m. to noon, and an afternoon class from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m., the classes are anything but traditional, a change many of the students seem to prefer.

“We have a lot of at-risk students who aren’t graduating and we have them here trying to get them back on track,” said Seneca R-7 Superintendent Dr. Steve Wilmoth. “We owe it to the community to help these kids get a diploma.”

Wilmoth first approached the school board about the alternative school in November, urging them to help address the growing number of students who would not graduate on time, or ever, without some kind of help.

Board members approved the program unanimously, costing the district a pro-rated amount of $108,000 this semester. For the 2012-2013 school year, the district will pay approximately $200 more per student than the amount of funding the state provides, at $6,850 per student.

Wilmoth said those numbers are feasible, and when it means a student who may not have graduated otherwise receives their diploma, it’s worth it.

“It’s really a washout,” Wilmoth said. “If we can get half of these kids to graduate that would’ve been dropouts there’s not even a dollar sign to top it.”

Ombudsman is an organization based out of the Chicago, Ill. area. They offer at-risk students an alternate route to earn a high school diploma by partnering with school districts throughout the country. Currently they have locations in 20 states and are accredited through AdvancED, a unified organization of accreditation outlets. The Seneca location is their second in the state.

Ombudsman manages the alternative school site, provides the learning tools, such as computers and books, and employs the center director and teachers.
For the district’s part, in addition to the flat rate they pay per student, they also still provide numerous services to the students. Those enrolled in the alternative school are still listed on the district’s enrollment rolls, may still participate in district extracurricular activities, still receive the same diploma, and may still take part in the traditional high school graduation.

However, a school day for those students is much different than it is for their peers.

Upon arrival, students consult their own individualized syllabus, and then begin a 30-minute reading period. Following that exercise, it is the student’s decision which subject to tackle first. They click through the lessons on their computers, and have the option of switching subjects at any time.
Clayton Brewer is a senior in high school, and just began his last semester by switching to the alternative school.

“If it wasn’t for this place, I wouldn’t graduate,” he said.

For students like Brewer, one of the perks of the new program is the hands-on attention the small classroom size allows.

With two teachers and 15 students present for each class, the student to teacher ratio is much more manageable than in a traditional classroom setting.
“It makes us be able to come in here and work at our own pace,” Brewer said. “They care about each and every one of us, they’re not trying to take care of the whole school like [at the high school].”

Amanda Rinehart, center director, said the extra help she and other staff members are able to provide to the students makes all the difference.
“Our student to teacher ratio is really incredible,” Rinehart said. “A lot of times in a traditional classroom you’ve got one teacher and 25 or 30 students, so it’s very hard to give that one student the time they need. We can do that.”

Though the program is still in the early stages, both Rinehart and Wilmoth say they have already seen improvement in numerous students, in both behavior and academics.

“A lot of the behaviors that were recurring in the traditional classroom format aren’t occurring over here,” Rinehart said. “It’s made a giant difference to change the environment for them.”

She said with the four-hour day, many students are making the most of that extra time. Some students work, while others, such as Brewer, are taking classes at Crowder College.

Allison O’Neill, chief operating officer at Ombudsman, flew in from Chicago for Wednesday’s open house. She said the Seneca community has been more than accommodating for the new program.

“The program always starts with conversations with the local school district,” O’Neill said. “What we want to find out is what are their needs, and then build something together that’s going to fill those needs. We want to work together to find something that is going to work for the kids.”

The new alternative school is located on Cherokee Ave., in what was previously an abandoned theater. Before Ombudsman took it over last fall, the building had sat empty since 1978.

Wilmoth said the district is looking at expanding the number of students the alternative school will accommodate.

Ombudsman charges the district a per seat rate, not per individual student. If the district were to decide to expand, they would simply purchase additional seats. Wilmoth said he will likely approach the school board about that expansion in the future.