For years, Greeley-Evans School District 6 officials have dealt with complaints about overcrowding, fighting and bullying in the district’s four middle schools.
The 2011-12 contract negotiations between the Greeley Education Association and the district pushed the topic to the forefront when teachers made middle school reform and better ways to deal with behavior issues one of their top priorities.
“The final prompt to act … was based on conversations with (the teachers) during negotiations and their concerns and suggestions regarding student behavior and interventions,” said Ranelle Lang, District 6 superintendent, in October 2011 when a $500,000 contract was approved with an outside educational service to take over educating the district’s most troubled middle-schoolers at a separate facility.
The district contracted with Ombudsman, a national organization based in Illinois. It provides personalized, evidence-based educational services for non-traditional learners in collaboration with families and public school districts.
Most students in the program have behavior problems; others struggle academically or have truancy issues. They all require extra attention to succeed, and the traditional middle schools — all with near 750 students each — don’t have the resources or manpower to accommodate them.
The students are referred to the program by their school principal after all other options are exhausted. The school is set up in west Greeley near Aims Community College.
“They are not bad kids,” said Kim Chambers, the school’s director. “Every kid is at-risk for something. It’s about what resources they need to succeed. These kids just need more individualized attention.”
The original contract covered the last half of the 2011-12 school year and the 2012-13 school year. The contract renews yearly. It adds to the choices for alternative education in the district. There are 44 students enrolled in the program.
“We started it specifically for middle school students who are at highest risk for dropping out because of behavior, grades, skills, life circumstances or whatever,” said Amie Cieminski, director of secondary school leadership for the district. “Jefferson (High School) is designed for kids behind in credits who need help catching up. ENG@GE (Online Academy) is for self-motivated students who want a different approach. And GAP (Greeley Alternative Program) is for 17 plus.”
Reach Opportunity Center is a short-term, academic intensive program. It gives students the academic skills they need while focusing on behavior modification. There are two-, four- and one-half-hour sessions daily, accommodating up to 30 students each session. Students must spend at least 12 weeks in the program before they can transition back to a traditional middle school; however, some may need more time. During transition, students spend half their day at Reach and half their day at the traditional school. Transition lasts for as along as students need the added help and tutoring.
Jesenia Garcia started the program last year as a seventh-grader. She begins her transition next week.
“Last year, I didn’t really like it at all,” the 13-year-old said. “But this year is better. My parents talked to me about changing my attitude so I didn’t get stuck here.”
Jesenia now carries straight A’s.
Chambers said many of the kids could be labeled gifted and talented once the schools drill down to what is causing the problems in traditional schools; 11 students have straight A’s.
“It’s a more individualized piece that we can offer,” Chambers said. “That taste of success is beautiful. I love it when that light bulb goes on.”
Cieminski said the Ombudsman program has helped the middle schools, as well, because it has allowed administrators to focus on the needs of the majority of students who don’t need the added attention.
“It’s one more option that administrators and teachers feel like they have besides expulsion,” Cieminski said. “The more individualized support (the student needs) the more time it takes away from (the administrators and teachers). We can do so much more for everyone because this helps us allocate resources in ways that are best for everyone.”
For most students, the program is a last-chance opportunity. Mark Romero, the district’s middle school at-risk facilitator, said most parents support the option.
“We look at the history of the student, what’s happened at school and what the school has done to try to help,” Romero said. “When we tell them that it’s not working, and we’re worried if things don’t change, their student could end up expelled, they recognize their student’s not successful, and most are very grateful they’ve been given this support.”
Jesenia said despite feeling like she had been targeted as a “problem,” last year, the program has helped her develop new study habits and get back on track so she can re-enter the traditional schools and feel confident she can succeed.
“Here, I get more help because at Heath there were too many kids,” she said. “Here, I get the full attention of the teachers, and the principal really wants to help us.”
The program touts a 10-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio with differentiated instruction, personalized academic plans and greater accountability.
“Giving kids accountability for their own choices, holding them responsible, that builds intrinsically,” Chambers said. “Pulling that all off for kids that are already challenged is pretty special.”