Joshua Scott, right, watches while Gear Storm works on algebra
problems Friday at an alternative school run by Ombudsman
Educational Services in Athens. Photo: David Manning
Students who had nearly given up now find reasons to stay in class
Six months after opening a new alternative school program for students
with discipline problems, the Clarke County School District is beginning
to see some promising results.
Though administrators don't yet
have test scores to show how much students are learning at the three
schools operated by Ombudsman Educational Services, students who had
nearly given up on school are back in class and many of them say they
are thinking more about education as a key to their future.
Joshua Scott, 18, is one of those students.
a former student at Cedar Shoals High School, was once in a world of
trouble. He was in and out of school, arrested for burglary and
fighting. Now, he's getting paid for tutoring younger students in
reading and math, and thinking about graduating from high school next
"I ain't getting in no more trouble or anything like
that," said Scott, who is thinking one day of going to veterinary school
or becoming an electrician. "It feels good to get money the legit way."
year ago, Scott was enrolled in the school district's now-defunct SOAR
Academy - a punitive alternative school housed in an outdated, rundown
building on the H.T. Edwards campus in West Athens.
budget-cutting move, the school district closed the school and signed a
contract with Ombudsman, a Tennessee company that runs alternative
schools and has had a proven track record of helping some of the most
unruly or struggling students succeed in a non-traditional classroom.
students who attend Ombudsman do so after they violate serious school
rules, like fighting or bringing drugs or weapons to school. Students
are monitored and if they show enough progress with behavior and grades,
may be eligible to return to traditional middle and high schools.
three Ombudsman schools, housed in strip malls, allow students work on
their own at computer terminals and put the onus on the students to come
to school and complete their work.
So far this year, the schools
enrolled 159 students and only 11 have dropped out. Student attendance
is also up - at SOAR, one student had missed 87 days of school, but at
Ombudsman she has missed less than 10, according to Ombudsman directors.
students have also been placed with job mentors or coaches in positions
where they are learning not only soft skills like punctuality and
communication, but how a salon, factory, restaurant or the school
district's transportation office operate.
The better physical facilities are a big improvement over the old SOAR campus, said one student, Kadeem McGriff, 18.
"You can focus more and have a lot more opportunities. ... It's giving me a lot of hope for the future," he said.
attended the former alternative school - which was more like a jail
than a school. It was full of police officers, metal detectors, orders
and pat-downs, said McGriff's mother, Vella Pinnick.
"It was more
like preparing your child to go to prison," Pinnick said. "It was nasty
in there. It just seemed like an old jail house for kids. It was
mentally telling them they're criminals, basically. At Ombudsman it's
not like that - they feel special over there."
Ombudsman centers, students don't have to go through metal detectors or
receive a pat-down from a police officer, and they attend classes in
small groups rather than in traditional classes.
end up liking to come to school again," said Sean Simpson, who directs
the Ombudsman site off Barnett Shoals Road in Southeastern Clarke
Donna Wagman embraces her son, Caleb, at the school.
students are even choosing to stay at the school instead of returning
to their regular high school, or are requesting to attend an Ombudsman
site because they know they can be successful there, according to Ernest
Hardaway, who as deputy superintendent had been in charge of assigning
students to the SOAR Academy.
Students may decide to attend an
Ombudsman school to help them complete high school, or if they improve
their behavior and grades, can decide to go back to traditional high
"It gives these kids more ownership
in being there," Hardaway said. "They know if they don't want to be
there, they can get up and walk out that door - that no one is going to
physically restrain you or refrain you from going home."
of the more than 100 students who were considered dropouts in the
2009-10 school year, 25 of the 52 that have returned to the school
district are attending Ombudsman sites.
While anecdotally the
schools have helped steer many students onto the right track, it's not a
silver bullet for turning around every teen who struggles, according to
"We've had some kids say, 'It's not for me, I don't
want to go,' " Hardaway said. "It's not a cure-all, but for more kids
than not, it has worked. If kids are given an opportunity to work, which
gives them more responsibility, then they'll probably be more engaged,
and that has worked."
The system does face one big obstacle: Since most of the course work is done online, students have to have some reading skills.
improve students' literacy - or at least get them reading on a
second-grade level - the students need more trained reading coaches or
tutors and an extra reading program to provide more one-on-one help, he
"If we could afford it, it be great to have that additional
intervention so we could give them more of what they need to be better
readers," he said.
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