Alternative school will provide resources for younger students

Alternative school will provide resources for younger students by M. Jill Karolevitz An alternative school program for grades kindergarten through nine was unanimously approved Monday night by the Vermillion School Board.

The alternative school will be a pilot program, starting next semester.

Several administrators approached the school board in August about the possibility of an alternative school for the lower grades after determining that such a program was necessary. A committee, composed of administrators and staff from the district�s elementary and secondary schools, as well as counseling staff, has been working on a proposal since then. Pat Anderson, Vermillion Middle School principal, and Marianne Upward, special education coordinator, presented the proposal to the school board Monday night.

�This would target students with behavior issues,� Upward said.

She noted several �student types� that would possibly be placed in such a setting. They include those with poor peer relationships, those who have trouble with the law, refuse to do homework, show lack of respect, show intimidating, disruptive or aggressive behavior, have poor attendance, continually break rules and test the limits of school officials.

�We do have these types of students in Vermillion,� Anderson said. �There aren�t many, but they do exist. The need for an alternative school is there.�

The alternative school concept is not new to Vermillion � a program for grades 10 through 12 is in place, under the auspices of South East Job Link and its executive board. South East High is funded by the Vermillion School District and the South Dakota Department of Labor through the Job Training Partnership Act on a 50-50 basis. Becki Stoddard is the coordinator/teacher and Juanita Yellow Wolf is another teacher.

�We have 15 students now, all from the Vermillion School District,� Stoddard said. �We can accept up to 20 students, even those from outside our district, subject to their home school�s approval.�

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South East High is a program that focuses more on academics rather than behavior-oriented problems. It�s also limited to older students.

Anderson calls the program for younger students, a �transition point.�

�Bad behavior interferes with learning,� he said. �A lot of times, learning stalls or shuts down when a student doesn�t behave. Placing the student in an alternative school would teach them the social and academic skills they need to return to a regular school setting.�

Students who behave badly also disrupt the learning potential of their peers and take a teacher�s time away from others in the classroom.

�In that case, it would also benefit other students in the class to have that student removed,� Upward said.

The alternative school will be staffed with a full-time special education teacher to serve the multiple academic and behavioral needs of the students. The committee also recommended a full-time tutor to allow for more flexibility, one-on-one or small group instruction and support for the teacher.

Finding the staff for the alternative school will be a priority.

�We will begin advertising immediately,� Anderson said. �It takes a well-trained, patient person to work with these students. We do not want to put someone without experience in this setting because the key to the alternative school�s success is staffing.�

Three components would be addressed in the alternative school setting:

? Social skills � Teaching students the proper behaviors necessary to be in the regular school setting.

? Academic � Individual plans for each student would address their weaknesses, such as reading. A clock hour structure could be used whereby students would work on a particular subject, on a grade-appropriate basis, until they have completed it. Curriculum materials would be obtained from the existing supply at the regular schools.

? Counseling � These students most often have serious problems which extend beyond the school environment. Disruptive home lives, poor support systems and substance abuse are issues for most of these students. Counseling services would be provided by existing school staff.

Before a student is placed in the alternative school, however, a rigorous referral process would be completed.

�We don�t want this to be a dumping ground for students,� Anderson said. �There would be a thorough recommendation and placement process.�

Students in both regular school and special education can be recommended for the program.

�If we have an alternative school, we can arbitrarily assign a regular education student to that program if we see the need,� said Superintendent Robert Mayer. �If the student is in special education, their placement would be determined by a placement committee composed of teachers, administration and parents.�

Anderson noted that the committee views the alternative school as a temporary setting. The ultimate goal would be to return the student to regular school.

�It seems to me that the earlier we identify the types of kids that would benefit from an alternative school setting, the better opportunity we have in being successful in helping them,� said Tom Craig, president of the school board. �And that helps all of us because they won�t be a problem once they reach middle school and high school. I would think that a one semester pilot program would be money well invested.

�The high school alternative school has done a great job in administering its program,� he continued. �I think we�re looking at an opportunity to expand on that philosophy because we should address the needs of all of our students.�

Several sites for the school have been studies, but a location is yet to be determined. Other details, including cost of operation, lunch, scheduling, transportation and activities such as art, physical education and music, will be addressed as second semester nears.

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