The Suffolk public schools' alternative-education programs are struggling to help academically challenged students catch up with their peers, and some community leaders are calling for an early-intervention model such as the nonprofit An Achievable Dream Academy.

That Newport News-based school is a public-private partnership that serves children from low-income families. It uses longer instructional days to teach the same public school curriculum and it incorporates financial and social lessons. The Virginia Beach School Board recently approved a contract with the organization for one of its schools in 2014.

Some say that model could help Suffolk's four alternative programs, too.

Recidivism rates are high in the Suffolk division's programs designed for students with behavioral problems, and participation is low in career- and technical-education programs aimed at helping students boost class credits or earn a GED certificate, according to information shared at a School Board meeting last month.

For example, 30 percent of students sent to Turlington Woods School, an alternative day program for middle and high schools students with behavioral problems, completed the program but returned within four years, according to the division. Thirty-six students enrolled three times within that period, and two enrolled four times.

Most in the division's in-school programs for low-achieving high school students passed core subjects last school year, but middle school students didn't fare as well. About 85 percent of math test takers and 75 percent of English test takers in those grades didn't meet proficiency benchmarks, according to the data.

Identifying troubled students earlier could help remedy those problems, some community leaders say.

The Community Action Coalition - a network of business owners, parents and educators - last year began calling on the division to strengthen accountability measures and academic goals in all the alternative programs.

The group again stressed those points at the recent meeting and specifically proposed that the school division replace the current setup at Turlington Woods with a specialty program and consider Achievable Dream. Such a centralized program would help students catch up, said Robert Stephens, coalition co-founder.

The program would start with kindergarten through second grade to reach students at risk of falling behind earlier, and add at least one grade level each year. The proposal would have students with disciplinary problems stay in programs in their home schools.

Stephens, who volunteers as a mentor at Turlington Woods, said in an interview that the division's current programs don't do enough soon enough to help troubled students.

"If you have one child failing, that's one too many," he said.

"Until administrators in the schools start to understand if we don't do something in the early years then this problem is going to be exacerbated. You've got to get to the root cause of the problem."

The division understands the alternative-education challenges, and that's why a committee was created this year to review the alternative programs, Deputy Superintendent Jacqueline Chavis said. The school division has not received a formal pitch for Achievable Dream, but the committee considered that model, she said.

The committee instead recommended at the board meeting incremental improvements in communication and screening in the divisions' four alternative programs, to help guidance counselors, teachers and parents better discuss students' needs and come up with improvement plans. Budget cuts over the past two years that eliminated staff members also have hurt the programs, Chavis said.

The new suggestions also aim to strengthen the consistency of instruction for students who temporarily enroll in Turlington Woods - typically nine weeks to a semester - but will later return to regular schools.

More extensive ideas - such as hiring more staff or centralizing programs in one location - are next on the list but will likely involve scarce new funding, school leaders said.

The School Board delayed a vote on the changes, asking for additional information and time to study the options.

Board Chairman Mike Debranski applauded the Achievable Dream model during an interview, but said he's not sure whether Suffolk's business community or the division could pay for such a program.

"It takes a lot of money to do what they do," he said. "I just don't know the ins and outs, or that we can organize it in our scheme of things."

Cherise M. Newsome, 757-222-5215, cherise.newsome@pilotonline.com


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