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BOE mulls plan for alternative students

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

COVINGTON -- It will be at least another month before the Newton County Board of Education will decide on the fate of Newton County's alternative school program.

The item isn't up for discussion on this month's agenda, but outsourcing the current program is still under consideration by the Newton County School System and the school board.

The plan to use a private company to provide alternative education to NCSS alternative school students is part of a list of possible cuts that NCSS Superintendent Gary Mathews proposed last month to help the system find about $9 million to cut from next school year's budget to make up for expected losses in local, state and federal revenues.

Mathews said the plan could save $1,941,962 and hopefully improve the alternative students' outcome.

"We've been looking at this for some time," Mathews said. He previously said that NCSS must do better for these students.

The system is considering a partnership with Ombudsman, a national provider of alternative education.

Under the current Sharp plan, it costs $3,187,462 to operate the facility to pay for 17.5 classified staff salaries and benefits; 30 certified staff salaries and benefits; $200,000 worth of technology hardware and support; two teachers and supplies for the Career, Technical and Agricultural Education program; $55,000 worth of central office support; transportation; two resource officers; and other resources, according to documents.

If the school board approves the Ombudsman program, a reduction in force policy would be applied by NCSS for all eliminated classified and certified staff positions; no security officers are required for the program.

With the Ombudsman program, NCSS expects to spend $1,245,500 on alternative education. This includes $354,000 tuition for 60 middle school slots and $798,000 for 140 high school slots, as well as $93,500 for transportation.

Mathews has said that the school board might prefer to not include transportation, which would allow for an even greater savings. If chosen, Ombudsman students will have their own buses that will run alternative routes, he said.

Currently, 125 students are enrolled at Sharp, according to the most recent enrollment report on Jan. 6. Enrollment is down from four students last year and 45 students from December.

Ombudsman partners with 23 school districts in Georgia with 46 centers located throughout the state, according to Phyllis Lucia, vice president for business development at Ombudsman, in a recent presentation to the school board. NCSS staff recently visited three Ombudsman centers in Douglas County that helped confirm the quality of the program, Mathews said.

The program is accredited through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and other accreditation organizations as a whole and at each site, Lucia said.

The program is aligned to Georgia Performance Standards and has low student-staff ratios, Lucia said.

"We create an intimate environment where students achieve more than a year's work in less than a year's time," she said. "It allows students to see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel."

She said Ombudsman staff works with students to develop an educational plan, and students come into the center and make choices on what they want to work on and when.

"It's very different from a traditional alternative education," she said.

Students would attend three- or four-hour sessions each weekday and would follow the NCSS calendar; about 70 percent of the curriculum is computer-based with the other portion being teacher-led instruction and remediation, Lucia said.

Although Ombudsman offers extended weekday and weekend hours for an extra fee, NCSS is currently seeking to use the program as a typical weekday facility.

"We certainly have the latitude to consider a night high school with Ombudsman ... but, for now, we're focused on a daytime program," Mathews said.

Staff would include a director, a certified special education teacher and three other instructors. Preferential interviews will be offered to current Sharp staff, Lucia said.

So far, 85 percent of Ombudsman students graduate from the program, successfully returned to their home schools or complete an enrollment period with Ombudsman, Lucia said. Overall students improved in math, vocabulary, spelling and reading, according to entry and exit exams.

She added that many Ombudsman sites have high attendance rates as well.

Students must pass the Georgia High School Graduation Tests to earn a diploma; students can receive an Ombudsman diploma if they continue to repeatedly fail state tests, Lucia said.

For the 2009-10 school year, the failure rates for Sharp students on state-required End of Course Tests were 93 percent in Math I, 83 percent in Math II, 91 percent in U.S. History, 53 percent in physical science and 58 percent in literature and composition. The failure rates for the middle school Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests were 56 percent in math, 24 percent in reading and 93 percent in math retakes, according to NCSS documents.

Additionally, 97 students had five or more consecutive absences in the 2009-10 school year and 50 percent of seniors graduated that year, documents show.

If approved, Ombudsman will lease a space in the community to set up its program. Mathews has said the program would offer two sites -- one on the west side of town and one in the central or eastern district.

Lucia added that NCSS would choose the sites, which school board members, principals, counselors and others are encouraged to visit to meet with students.

Mathews said no decision has been made regarding what would happen to the current Sharp facility on Newton Drive, which has been phased out of state funding for several years.

The board is expected to approve a tentative budget by May and a final budget in June; school systems in Georgia have until May 15 to extend contracts to teachers. Some of the proposed cuts may come up for a vote by the school board before May, Mathews has said.