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School system now offering alternative education program

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By Geoff Hamill

In a pubic school system, learning is for every student, but not all students can learn in the same settings. That’s why Superintendent of Washington County Schools Robin Cochran is excited about a new program offering an alternative to students who may not have functioned as well as possible in the traditional classroom setting.

The new alternative program offered at Washington County High School is a program Cochran has long believed was needed in the local school system, and she’s glad to see it coming to fruition.

“As a principal, I recognized that need at the school level, our current BOE members recognize the need and we have had parents request this option,” Cochran said. “Students who don’t fit in a regular classroom need an opportunity to be successful. Sometimes they’ll be the ones to tell you they don’t feel comfortable, or there are too many distractions for them. They feel a need for a more structured setting.”

A more structured setting is just what some students got when classes began Monday. Cochran’s idea for an alternative classroom became a reality when Washington County High School started its own program, and that made room for about a dozen students with exceptional needs for their education. Previously, Washington County students attended an alternative program in Marion County, but space there was limited for local students. Cochran said the Marion program had room for five Washington County students, but there is a  need for as many as a dozen on the local level to receive alternative services.

“Up until now, we’ve been working with Marion County for our alternative school. We have had five kids going there by the contract we have with them,” Cochran said. “Our board has notoriously voted when expelling a student to expel with services.  This generally means sending a student to alternative school, and not just sending them home. We take a strong stand on illegal behavior like alcohol and drugs, as well as unacceptable behavior, but they are not 18, and kids are going to make mistakes. We have an obligation to educate these students, and we have been looking for an alternative setting, and now I think we’ve found it.”

Students taking part in the alternative program will include some who have disabilities, as well as others who may have found themselves in trouble at school. Cochran said a local admission and release committee (ARC) will examine students on a case-by-case basis and determine if the alternative program is the best option for them.

“We want to individualize this program for the kids, and not just make it a blanket program for all special education students. Marion County was not meeting our need in numbers, but we also had some kids with disabilities that were not admitted there, and by law, they could do that. It was just their procedure,” Cochran said. “These are Washington County students, and we want to take responsibility for educating our students and make sure that we’re doing all we can do for all of them, and not just send them out and bring them back at the end of the day.”

Staffing for a program like the alternative classroom is key, and Cochran said there will be a teacher and an instructional assistant who will oversee the daily classroom activities, with one male and one female staff member. She said this is a good situation since some students will respond better to a male teacher, while others will work better with a female.

Cochran said concerns have been raised about the program being conducted on the high school campus, but she is confident things will go well. Currently, the alternative classroom is being housed at the high school in a classroom normally used for physical education classes in the weight room. The area features its own entrance and exit, as well as its own restroom, and it is equipped with an area where students will be able to have activity without just sitting in a classroom all day. Lunches will be served to students in the area, rather than in the school cafeteria. Cochran said plans are under way to house the program at central office starting with the 2010-11 school year.

“We want to make sure people understand that alternative school is not a punishment, it’s an intervention for when a regular setting just isn’t working. Hopefully that will be a way for us to prevent some dropouts and prevent that loss of hope. It’s just one more measure to say we care, and we want you to be successful,” Cochran said.