Avoyelles School Board to consider options for alternative school
Giving up on students who run afoul of school rules is not an option, but the Avoyelles School Board is now faced with choosing an option to serve its expelled/long-term suspended students. The Avoyelles Virtual Alternative Program (AVAP) has been housed in the “elementary wing” of the former Hessmer High School since the 2014-15 school year. The program is run by Ombudsman, a national company that operates alternative education centers around the country.
Ombudsman’s five-year contract expires this year. The School Board is expected to decide at its March 12 meeting whether to renew that contract.
“We have to continue educating them,” Child Welfare & Attendance Supervisor Jennifer Dismer told the board’s Education Committee on Feb. 18. She also noted that in two years, state regulations will require the social/emotional aspect of alternative education that Ombudsman already provides.
The alternative school has had two half-day sessions with about 30 students each. If AVAP is renewed, the center will operate a full-day program with 50 students. The student-teacher ratio will still be about 7-to-1 as AVAP will add three more teachers and an instructional aide to the staff. The school has three teachers, a behavioral interventionist and two aides.
AVAP Director Tametria Guillory is also considered a teacher, as well as a social worker. The change to a full-day program will immediately save the school district $170,000 in transportation costs by cutting out the mid-day shuttles.
At this time, Avoyelles and Marskville students attend the morning session. They ride their regular buses to their zoned school and are then brought to AVAP. The students are taken by bus to LaSAS for lunch and are taken home by bus after lunch. Bunkie and LaSAS students attend the afternoon session. They are taken by bus to LaSAS where they eat lunch and then are taken back to their zoned school to be returned home.
Several board members recommended eliminating all bus transportation for the AVAP students, requiring parents to bring their child to and from the alternative school. “I am not against the alternative school,” Board Member Chris LaCour said. “I just think we need to make parents be parents. Don’t provide transportation to AVAP.
“If we can’t make it harder on the students, we need to put pressure on the parents and have the parents come up with a solution to their child’s behavior,” he added.
Superintendent Blaine Dauzat said such a move would be allowable because providing transportation for the students is not mandated by state law. However, he cautioned board members that such a policy could decrease the parish’s graduation rate and increase its drop out rate.
If transportation to and from the alternative school is a hardship, older high school students could elect to quit school when they are old enough to drop out.
Dauzat told board members that initially the proposal was not to provide transportation. Board members decided to offer that service to help parents.
The problem, he noted, was that if getting the students to and from the school was placed on the parents, it is possible some parents “won’t get them there.”
Dauzat pointed out that most of the board members are in the early months of elected office and have not had to deal with a crying parent pleading the case of their child.
“When it’s ‘Kid X,’ it’s one thing,” Dauzat said. “but when ‘Bill Smith’ is sitting there, crying and telling you his son is a good boy who just messed up, it’s different.”
AVAP has allowed the district “to save some students, but not all of them” that have been expelled from their zoned schools, Dauzat added.
Dismer said most of those sent to AVAP are 7th and 8th graders. The program is only available to students in grades 6-12.
Students assigned to AVAP have the option of working for an “early release” to return to their regular school.
After 30 days in the AVAP center, those who have made good grades and had no behavior infractions earn a “probationary release” to their regular school.
“Most of the time, those on probationary release go back to their school and do not go back to AVAP,” Dismer said. Guillory also told the committee members there has been no problem with those released to their schools coming back to AVAP.
So far this year, Ombudsman records show 126 enrollments with 120 students being served, indicating six students were released and returned.
That is considerably better than last year’s total figures of 218 enrollments and 194 students served -- meaning 24 failed their probationary release and were returned to AVAP.
Ombudsman Regional Vice President Scott Russell said those figures -- even the higher rate of last year -- are comparable to those in its other sites and “represent a decent success rate. The fact is, we do not see a lot of returns after we send them back to their regular school.”
The committee was presented a cost analysis of two district-run alternative programs using the Hessmer campus and two options of a contract renewal with Ombudsman.
In the district-run programs, it would cost $758,598 the first year and $598,711 a year thereafter if lunch was served on site. It would cost $703,682 the first year and $601,825 a year thereafter if the program continued to use LaSAS’ cafeteria for lunch.
The first-year figures include purchasing new equipment to replace Ombudsman’s equipment. That figure does not include an estimated $102,139 salary and benefits of a principal if the site was assigned one.
It was pointed out that Guillory serves as teacher and administrator and Ombudsman handles several administrative duties for the program.
The Ombudsman options estimated the cost of providing lunch on-campus at $488,800 and continuing to use the LaSAS cafeteria at $433,884 a year.
Dismer said she has visited several alternative school sites. In her opinion, “the best-run programs are those run by the school system, but they are very costly.”
Board President Lynn Deloach recommended the board extend Ombudsman’s contract for one year while the board studies other possible alternative programs.
The committee chose not to make a recommendation but to bring the matter up for discussion and decision by the full board at this Tuesday's meeting of the full board.
After the committee meeting, Dismer was asked if she would recommend one option over the other.
She declined to express an opinion at that time, but added, “It’s all about saving children. That’s what we do.”