Savannah-Chatham Public School officials made an important investment last year when they shut down Scott Alternative Education Center and hired a private company to operate schools for suspended and expelled students.
The privately owned and operated Ombudsman schools aren’t important just because they cost taxpayers about $2 million. They’re also the only viable academic option available to hundreds of middle and high school students who are suspended and expelled from public schools each year.
Shortly before the public school system’s alternative school programs were dismantled in 2012, officials created a tough new alternative school enrollment policy.
When students are recommended for suspension or expulsion, the district allows their parents to shorten the ordeal by sending them straight to an Ombudsman alternative school. Bypassing appeal hearings saves the district thousands in attorney’s fees and prevents students from missing weeks of school while they wait to appeal.
Parents who insist on appealing take a huge risk. If they lose, their child won’t be allowed to enroll in the free academic program offered by Ombudsman.
That leaves two options for students under the age of 16 — homeschool or pay for private school. In some cases it could be a year or more before those students qualified for readmission to the public school system.
Students age 16 and older would have a third option — dropping out.
In the past, parents complained that the district’s disciplinary process was subjective and unfair, resulting in disproportionate numbers of African-American suspensions and expulsions.
Others took issue with the quality and consistency of instruction and problems with safety and discipline in the district’s old alternative school program at Scott. Many appealed suspensions and expulsions in order to prevent their children from being placed there.
The new policy has discouraged many parents from taking that risk.
Since the district started denying alternative school to suspended and expelled students who unsuccessfully appealed, the number of appeals dropped from 25 in 2011 to just one in 2013. Over the last three years a total of 26 parents appealed suspension and expulsion decisions. All but eight were denied.
For its first year or so, the Ombudsman alternative school program suffered behavior and academic problems to the point district officials threatened to terminate the Ombudsman contract. But this year, officials say, strategic changes have created dramatic improvements in Ombudsman schools.
On one recent day, small groups of middle school students were gathered around work stations in the Ombudsman Alternative School on Brampton Road in Garden City. In one corner a group of six students shouted out the factors of 28 so their math teacher could list them on the board.
In another corner students worked on writing prompts with their language arts teacher. A third group worked on finding the surface area and volume of a cylinder. A few individuals worked independently on self-directed computer lessons at the center of the room.
Eighth-grader James Smith said the three months he’s spent at Ombudsman have been positive.
“I still get into a little trouble because I talk too much, but I know what I need to do to get back on track and I get my work done because there aren’t as many distractions here,” Smith said.
Brampton Road is one of four Ombudsman alternative education centers for local students. The others are Skidaway Road, Waters Avenue and an overage for grade-acceleration program at Groves High School.
So far this year 331 students have been sent to an Ombudsman alternative school.
Ombudsman regional vice president for center operations John Wacha said his staff has worked with the district to give alternative school students a reason to work hard and behave.
Before, Wacha said, they were just biding their time until their punishments were up and had no incentive for doing better.
Now, all suspended and expelled students get a plan detailing everything they need to do to return to regular school. Their outcomes are evaluated monthly, and once they’ve fulfilled the terms of their contract they can go back.
“When they know the rules of the game and there’s a clear picture for meeting goals, the students will work to meet those goals,” Wacha said. “They don’t work well when they don’t know what the expectations are.”
Ombudsman’s new expectations involve everything from arriving at school on time and going home without loitering and loud talking afterward. They have to have an 85 percent attendance rate or better, maintain at least a C average in a minimum of three core content areas each quarter, demonstrate growth in reading and math and refrain from fighting and other disruptive behaviors.
Before students return to their home schools, Ombudsman staff meet with their principals to map out transition plans. They discuss the approaches to positive behavior and academics that work best for each student so the schools can use that information to help maintain their progress.
“We’re not just dropping them off at the door step,” Wacha said.
Ombudsman staff also received 80 hours of training in the district Positive Behavior Intervention Support, classroom management and crisis de-escalation techniques. Off-duty Savannah-Chatham police officers have been hired for added security.
Ombudsman also has partnered with the Savannah Youth Futures Authority to ensure students and their families receive all the counseling, mentoring and resources they need to be successful.
At the same time, Ombudsman schools use the same academic program as the district’s Twilight School so students can transition more easily between course curriculums. They’ve also increased instructional services for students who are struggling in math and reading.
After the first two months of this school year, all of the students at the Garden City site had raised their reading skills by at least one grade level, and 56 percent of all Ombudsman students had raised their reading skills by a grade level.
“After they realized they could go back when they met the criteria, they really focused,” said Rashada Tedder, Ombudsman Alternative Education Administrator.
After the first quarter this year, 15 percent to 20 percent of the students at Ombudsman were able to go back to their regular schools and just 6 percent have been suspended while at Ombudsman. Last year, 43 percent of the students were suspended while at Ombudsman.
“We have seen a tremendous change,” said Tammy Perkins, Savannah-Chatham’s senior director of support services. “Disciplinary infractions are down by 95 percent compared to what they were last year this time, and we are very pleased.”