LOOKING FOR ALTERNATIVES
DISTRICTS FACE SPACE SHORTAGE AT THEIR DISCIPLINE SCHOOLS
By Monique Harrison
Space is tight at the two alternative schools designed to house Tupelo and Lee County students with repeated discipline problems.
And as a result, some students who might otherwise be sent to the Bissell Center or Discipline School are being kept in their home schools.
“There are a lot of steps being taken to keep the number of students sent here at a minimum,” said Mary Stennett, director of the 5-year-old Bissell Center, which is an alternative school partnership between Tupelo and Lee County Schools. “Some schools are holding off on hearings and trying to do more at the school level. If it can be handled at the school level, it is. The only other recourse is to put students out here in an overcrowded system, and that’s not a good idea.”
The alternative school system has an annual budget of $340,000, with Tupelo paying $194,000.
At Bissell, there are a total of 60 spaces, with 27 of those slots going to Lee County Schools and the remainder going to Tupelo. By today, 65 students were expected to be placed in the school. Twenty-four of those students came from Lee County.
The Discipline School has a total of 30 spaces, with 11 going to Lee County. There are currently 34 students enrolled in the school.
Because many of the students are sent to the alternative schools for truancy, the absentee rate is often high.
Stennett said the space crunch is nothing new.
“In the past, we have had many more students than we should have,” Stennett said. “We’re actually doing a better job of meeting state requirements now than in the past few years.”
The Mississippi Department of Education requires all school districts to have an alternative school. The student-teacher ratio should be 15 to 1 or lower. At Bissell, there are four full-time teachers and one part-time certified teacher.
Alternative school students receive both individual and group instruction from teachers certified in English, math, science and social studies. Counseling is also included in most alternative school programs. Security is tight at the schools, with security guards monitoring activity.
Other discipline options
At the school level, principals and teachers have several options for handling students who are repeatedly being sent to the office for relatively minor discipline violations.
Teachers try everything from taking away break privileges to assigning additional homework.
If that doesn’t work, the principal or another administrator usually steps in, requiring students to stay for after-school detention. Parents may be contacted by either the teacher or administrator.
When those steps don’t work, students are usually required to attend in-school suspension.
Students assigned to ISS are yanked out of the regular classroom and placed in a classroom with other problem students.
Teachers send assignments to their students; but in most cases, no instruction is provided within the ISS classroom.
ISS students aren’t allowed to attend extracurricular activities. Lunch is eaten in the classroom and only two brief bathroom breaks are permitted.
“We expect them to work and that’s something we get across quickly,” said Saltillo High School Principal Johnny Green. “If they’ve finished their class assignments, they are given an encyclopedia to copy.
“One of our goals is to isolate them from their normal classmates,” Green said.
If a stay in ISS doesn’t solve discipline problems, the next step is typically assignment to the Bissell Center.
In extreme cases – particularly where weapons or drugs are involved – students are sent to the Discipline School.
Green said cramped conditions at the two alternative schools makes for frustrating times at his school.
“You have to deal with students that have been in trouble 10 or 12 times for cutting school,” Green said. “It gets frustrating because you keep dealing with the same kids again and again. But, as long as we can get the extreme cases out of here and to an alternative school, I can roll with the flow and take care of things here. Teachers are handling this well.”
He said there were about three repeat offenders at his 496-student school who would probably be in the alternative school system now if space was not a problem.
Tupelo Middle School Principal Jimmy Hall said the limited number of spaces at Bissell isn’t causing him problems.
“Right now, I can’t say I’ve seen any real problems that are the direct result of not having space at Bissell,” Hall said. “But in time, as the school year goes on, I worry that it might. The longer we go without space there, the more likely it is that this will become a big problem.”
Looking to expand
Tupelo Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Glenn McGee said he’d like to see the alternative school system expanded slightly, but not to the point the schools became dumping grounds for students principals and teachers simply want out of their hair.
He said about 10 more slots at Bissell and five more at the Discipline School would solve the space problem.
Both city and county school officials said bringing a third district into the alternative school to help shoulder expansion expenses was not an option.
The North East Mississippi Regional Alternative Education Cooperative, located in Booneville, linked six school districts.
Director Charles Rushing said the cooperative between New Albany, Union County, South Tippah, Baldwyn, Booneville and Prentiss County school districts worked relatively well.
“Financially, it has been productive,” Rushing said. “With so many state requirements, it’s tough for a single school district to do this successfully.”
But there was one problem with the three-year-old program.
“Some of the students had to ride as long as 40 minutes in a bus to get there,” said New Albany Superintendent Kenneth Quinn. “That’s a lot of time for them to find mischief. It just wasn’t working.”
This fall, New Albany, South Tippah and Union County schools plan to leave the cooperative and open their own alternative school at a former day-care building located in New Albany.
“I feel good about this move because it will cut down on transportation problems,” Quinn said. “It won’t be as hard to get the students here.”
In hopes of reducing the number of students sent to the alternative school, New Albany sends problem students through a behavior modification class at the school level.
“Increasing the amount of intervention done early on – before serious problems develop – is one of the best ways to keep the numbers down,” Quinn said.
McGee said he can’t justify increasing the number of expulsions because of the overcrowding.
“No one is going to hire a 15-year-old with very little education,” McGee said. “When adults make mistakes, we give them a second chance. Why should we deny children those same chances?”