County school programs that serve students struggling with academic, disciplinary and behavioral issues are poised to offer services that are more personalized, emphasize social-emotional health and provide a greater variety of academic options, school system officials told the school board Monday.
While efforts to redesign the programs began last year, the school system is now positioned for “a much larger step” of the redesign process to start next school year, said Christopher Garran, associate superintendent for high schools.
Middle and high school students are placed in one of the district’s six alternative programs following issues including serious disciplinary action, use of a controlled substance or a weapon, and behavior or attendance problems, among others, according to the district’s website.
About 155 students are enrolled in the alternative programs this school year, according to the district’s 2013-14 Schools at a Glance report.
Four of the programs are in the Blair G. Ewing Center in Rockville, including the Fleet Street Middle School program, the 45-Day Interim Program, Needwood Academy and Randolph Academy.
The Glenmont Alternative Middle School program is in Bethesda and the Hadley Farms program is in Gaithersburg.
Ira Thomas, principal of the alternative programs, told the board that the redesign plan is “still a work in progress” but is moving forward.
“Our new design is aimed at addressing what has become for many of our students a school-to-prison pipeline,” he said. “We want to arrest that. We want to stop that.”
The redesign plan includes personalized learning plans, varied learning opportunities such as internships and project-based learning, and environments that fosters social emotional well-being.
The plan will be rolled out over several years, said Beth Schiavino-Narvaez, deputy superintendent of the office of school support and improvement.
Garran said the district’s central office staff needs to better support the programs and their staff.
Achievement data for alternative programs students are “disheartening,” Garran said.
“If we have students who are largely disengaged, chronically disengaged in middle and high schools that are not achieving well, why would we expect them to achieve differently once they arrive at alternative programs if we’re not doing something different for them?” he asked.
About 53 percent of students enrolled in the alternative programs last school year were black and 27 percent were Hispanic, according to a Feb. 24 memo from Superintendent Joshua P. Starr to the board.
More than 86 percent of alternative programs students last year were eligible at one point for free and reduced-price meals, an indication of poverty, the memo said.
Garran said that, in addition to research of other districts’ methods, staff gathered input from students, staff and community members who suggested changes, including allowing students to permanently enroll in a program, new ways of teaching the curriculum, more course options and mental health services.
Thomas said the personalized learning plans — one of the plan’s three main components — are the “anchor.”
Some students and staff will try the personalized learning plans this spring, Narvaez said.
In a second part of the plan, the district will offer “pathways for learning,” such as internships and lessons based on projects, that differ from the schools’ conventional seven-period day.
The system also aims to improve the programs’ environments by providing mental health services and connecting families to comprehensive services.
Starr said “things must significantly and radically change” in the alternative programs to help improve dropout and attendance rates.
Board members said the programs have become a weak spot and gained a negative reputation.
Board Vice President Patricia O’Neill (Dist. 3) of Bethesda said the board has heard parents appeal decisions to place students in alternative programs because the parents thought there weren’t as many academic options for the students.
“It’s viewed really as a dead end,” she said.