Pinellas County school officials want to improve the way they teach truant and disruptive students, which school board members said last week was one of the biggest problems facing the school district.
During their monthly workshop Tuesday, board members discussed a districtwide review of dropout prevention and alternative education programs that concluded many programs are underutilized. School officials hope that increasing offerings for career technical education and adding programs to get students back on grade level faster might encourage more students on the cusp of dropping out of school to finish.
But school board member Linda Lerner said there is still much work to be done to help students with behavioral and academic problems.
“I’ve been around a while, and I can tell you it’s a need that hasn’t been taken care of and it has to do with student achievement,” Lerner said. “I know that if you asked middle school principals, ‘Who needs an intense behavior alternative program?’ you could fill a school up with 200 kids. … To go in these programs now and see all of that staff there and no kids is sad and not right.”
Enrollment at Pinellas Secondary School, where chronically misbehaving students in Grades 6 to 12 are reassigned to continue their education, is stagnant, at 75 percent capacity with 151 students, though Associate Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Bill Lawrence said the school can accommodate as many as 235.
“That’s pretty typical for this time of year,” Lawrence said. “But the teachers and principals at the school levels have to make sure they’re following the correct policies when reassigning students to these programs. It’s not a child being reassigned if they disrupt one class one time, and sometimes its just a matter of getting parents to fill out all of the paperwork.”
Next year, the Department of Teaching and Learning will be helping all schools revamp and develop more intervention programs for troubled students so teachers will be better prepared and reassignment to Pinellas Secondary or 74th Street Elementary for students in Grades 3 to 5 is a last resort.
“The chronically disruptive are the biggest frustrations because you don’t want these kids pulled out if you don’t have to, but then they are disrupting the education of the other kids in the classroom, so its one of those Catch-22s. What do you do?” said School Board Vice Chairwoman Peggy O’Shea.
“Maybe we need to open up more spaces, if that’s what it takes, in the schools and that will help move us along faster to get these kids in other programs if that’s where they belong. We need to do whatever we can to get them on track and excite them. Whatever it takes.”
The district’s behavioral intervention program, called Pathways to Success, has an extremely low teacher-pupil ratio, with only 54 students spread at three schools, Lawrence said. Next year, six teachers, seven behavior specialists and 10 assistants will be cut from the program, saving the district $1,028,500. Realigning positions in the Department of Drop Out Prevention will save an additional $221,300.
The district needs to create a separate school for third-, fourth- and fifth-graders who need to be reassigned due to behavioral problems, Lawrence said. Expanding career and technical education options for 16- to 19-year-olds could go a long way toward keeping students in school.
“I really with all my heart believe that the more career technical programs we have and the more mentoring we have, we really can service more of these students in our schools without reassignment,” said School Board member Terry Krassner. “We also need more schools to take advantage of the truancy program. When I went there, there were only 52 students, and only eight or nine middle schools. It just bothers me.”
The truancy program helps students who are chronically absent from school catch up with the rest of their classmates, and new “Point 5” programs will allow students in Grades 4-9 make up two years worth of school in one. This year, only over-aged fourth-graders were able to use the program, but all are on track to be promoted to fifth grade.
Lerner requested that school board members talk about the issues facing behavior intervention programs at their next workshop, and school Superintendent Mike Grego said the district will continue working on these programs.
“We need to take a more proactive approach then a reactive approach,” Grego said. “Hopefully we can put ourselves a little more out of the business of drop-out prevention.”