Seneca, Mo. — Board members approved superintendent Steve Wilmoth’s recommendation that the Seneca R-7 school district partner with the Ombudsman Alternative School Program to provide a new option for at-risk students in the district.

In a 6-0 vote at the school board meeting Thursday night, board members approved the alternative school, which could be available to students as early as Jan. 2012. The program would cost the school district $6,000.

Lisa Chitty spoke to the board on behalf of the Ombudsman Educational Program. She said she and Wilmoth had looked at an empty theater on Cherokee Ave. as a potential location for the alternative school.

The Ombudsman program would pay to fix up the location and for supplies, meaning the school district would have no upfront costs for the site.

The alternative school operates in terms of slots, as opposed to number of students enrolled, meaning the school district would pay for the one slot in the program even if one student left that slot vacant and another took it. This allows the students to return to mainstream without costing the school extra per person. The school would pay $200 per slot as opposed to per student. The minimum number of slots a branch can have is 30, the amount Seneca elected to start with.

“Kids can come and go, you’re literally paying for the seat,” Chitty said. “So a student could come a semester, get caught up and be where they need to be and go back to the district, then another student could come take that spot.”

With only 30 slots, the alternative school staff would consist of two teachers.

The school would be a partnership between the Ombudsman program and the district. Students who graduate from the program would earn a normal high school diploma, and would remain enrolled in the Seneca school district.

Chitty said the alternative school would serve as a last option for students who are not on path to graduate on time, or are likely to drop out.

“The data speaks for itself,” Chitty said. “100 percent of students that are referred to Ombudsman are at risk of dropping out. So every single one of those kids, for whatever reason, could potentially be a drop out. Presently our data says that 85 percent of our students have graduated, successfully returned to their school district, and/or completed their enrollment period with our organization.”

Ombudsman is an organization based out of the Chicago, Ill. area. They offer at-risk students an alternative 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.

Students attending the alternative school would still work to meet the same Missouri requirements that their peers in the mainstream school system would.
Chitty pointed out that the program benefits students reading far below grade level. For example, if a tenth grade student is reading at a sixth grade level, that tenth grade student would still receive the same assignments as his peers, however, the reading for that assignment would be lowered to his level. Chitty said teachers would then work with that student to bring them back up to their correct reading level.

Several administrators from the Seneca district recently visited the Ombudsman site in Ponca City, Okla. to observe the program. Beth James, director of special services at Seneca, was one of those who visited the Ponca City location. She said the students working at their individual reading level, yet working on the same curriculum as their peers is an advantage she noticed.

“One of the kids that I actually talked to was a special ed. kid and they did share that with me,” James said. “Whenever they were in special ed. in a class, they had been pulled out from the regular students and everybody knew they were special ed. And in this program they didn’t know they were special ed. They felt good about that because they were included.”

Willie Ng, high school principal, said the flexibility of the program is appealing both to administrators and students.

“They’ll run it the way we want to run it,” Ng said. “The one place we’ve seen is one giant room with teachers moving around and students working at their own rate on art, science, whatever. It is very impressive.”

Students attending the alternative school would go for only four hours per day. There would be two sessions offered, morning and afternoon. Chitty said in some cases where there is need for it, they can also offer night classes. She also pointed out that the hour requirements students in mainstream have to meet are not applicable to the alternative school.

Students at the alternative school would manage their own schedule by creating a syllabus each day listing the order in which they want to approach the different subjects.

Chitty said decisions such as bus transportation, providing lunches, and setting the eligibility criteria would be left to the school district.
Britt Burr, school board president, expressed concern over the school district’s ability to keep enrollment where it needs to be at the alternative school.

“Are we confident we can fill those 30 slots?” Burr asked. “Cause if we’ve got 24 kids then all of a sudden that raises our cost per student quite a bit.”

Wilmoth said he did not think that would be a problem and emphasized the need for an alternative school for students. He said he was aware of nearly 30 students who would use the program.

“We’ve got a real issue with kids that aren’t being successful, that part of them are getting a drivers license before they get out of middle school,” Wilmoth said. “That’s a problem you guys. We’ve let those kids down somewhere along the line. To be honest, I think that’s our problem and we can do a better job of educating our kids.”

Chitty said those students who have been held back would have the chance at the alternative school to catch up to their peers faster than through the normal school.

“We could accelerate them based on working at their own level and move them up through the system,” Chitty said. “We’re not rushing kids through but we give them every opportunity during the time that they’re with us to earn their credits toward their diploma.

Contractors have already looked at the potential school location, and Chitty said they believed they could have it ready in time for classes to start in January. The contract is for three years, however, Chitty said there is the opportunity for the school district to exit the contract at a year and a half if the school is not working for them.

Currently there is only one other Ombudsman Alternative School in Missouri, located in Potosi.

In other business, the Seneca school board:

  • Accepted bids on two vehicles. They voted to purchase a 2012 Dodge Caravan for $22,997 and a 2011 Ford F150 for $23,899.
  • Approved 11 semester graduates.
  • Approved a list of officials for winter sports.