Feb. 7, 2004 After assuring the territory that recent stories about the Education Department's returned federal funding is no "cause for alarm" and giving an upbeat update on the department's progress in its compliance agreement with the federal government, Education Commissioner Noreen Michael told the Board of Education Friday about an ambitious alternative education program.
The education commissioner stressed that it's a "program," a "revolving door," and not a school. The alternative school New Horizons, located in St. Thomas' Sub Base, will close its doors this year. In its place starting this fall, the Edith L. Williams Elementary School will house the alternative students. The closing of the Williams school at the end of this school year was hotly contended last year by both parents and teachers. (See "Many unhappy with Williams school plans".)
Michael said the program is being implemented because of "disciplinary problems, which have become increasingly disruptive and distracting." She said the current number of school expulsion hearings, as well as the types of infractions from the two senior high schools on St. Thomas "is a cause for grave concern by all." There have been increased reports of violence, including stabbings, at both Charlotte Amalie and Ivanna Eudora Kean High Schools in recent years.
The department has an obligation to teach at-risk students, as part of the No Child Left Behind Act, Michael said. She stressed that students will not stay at the school throughout their high school career. The goal is to return the students to their regular school after going through the alternative program, which will provide the students with tutorials; psychological, social and academic counseling; and contact with the police and the Departments of Mental Health or Human Services. "The typical student," said Michael, "will be potential dropouts, chronically disruptive students, and other troubled students in grades 7-12."
William Frett, St. Thomas-St. John school superintendent, said the students will be provided a full academic curriculum, as well. He said it is "important that the students do not lose regular school time." For instance, he said, a student on suspension is left with nothing to do for 10 days. "We want that student to be learning in the meantime, not left to his or her own devices."
Frett has been working with a task force to ready the school for the fall. A timeline has been set for all procedures including hiring of a director, contracts with psychologists, assigning of teachers and purchase of equipment. All dates are before the end of July.
The program will use federal funds exclusively: those from the innovative program funds and the federal Safe and Drug-Free Schools. Former New Horizons teachers will work in the alternative program. "There will be no additional cost to hire new teachers," Frett said.
"A final factor toward implementing the program," Michael said, "is the reality of fiscal restraints, in the government and, more specifically, in the department." She said she is "confident the program will result in safer schools," and will be a "viable alternative for our at-risk students who may get lost in the normal school setting."
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