Tupelo alternative school boosts academic credentials

By Chris Kieffer / NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – After Tupelo eighth-grade student Brieana Blanchard had attended classes at Tupelo’s Ombudsman Center for a little over a month, she had the option of returning to Tupelo Middle School.
Instead, she and her mother asked if Brieana could remain at the Ombudsman Center. It was a better educational fit for her, they said.
She was allowed to stay.
“I do better over here than I do at the middle school,” Brieana said.
The Tupelo Public School District dramatically changed its alternative school program this year.
In the past, students with certain discipline violations would be sent to an alternative school at the district’s Fillmore Center, where they would remain for a certain amount of time before returning to their former school.
In an effort to improve the academic instruction for the students at the school, the district contracted with a private company, Ombudsman, to run its alternative school. The Tupelo Ombudsman Center is now housed in the Fillmore Center building.
Students are still sent there for certain discipline violations, according to the district’s policies, but now they are placed in an individualized academic program once they’re there.
Not all the students are there for discipline reasons, either. Students who are struggling academically can also go to the Ombudsman Center to receive help in a smaller setting.
High school students can also choose to remain in the program and graduate from it, instead of from the high school. They would receive an Ombudsman diploma, instead of a Tupelo diploma. It still carries the weight of a private high school diploma.
Fifteen students are currently pursuing Ombudsman diplomas.
Senior Denarvis Ruff, 18, said he decided to seek an Ombudsman diploma because it would allow him to graduate sooner. He would have been a few credits short to graduate at the high school and would have needed to wait an additional year.
“I felt like it was a better opportunity to catch up on a few things I didn’t have the opportunity to do at the high school,” Ruff said.
Among the requirements of graduating from Ombudsman, students must complete a 2,500-word, college-level research paper. Ruff recently sat in a writing class with Destiny Johnson, 18, and Tevin Washington, 18, while the three of them worked on their papers.
Johnson and Washington both said that they decided to pursue graduation from the Ombudsman program because it would allow them to graduate this year instead of having to wait an extra year to complete other credits.
“It was a better opportunity so I accepted it,” said Washington, who wants to go to Mississippi State University and eventually become a brain surgeon.
Students who receive Ombudsman diplomas neither help nor hurt Tupelo in dropout statistics. They do not count as graduates or as dropouts but as students who transferred to another school.
All students are given a comprehensive test when they enter the Ombudsman Center to diagnose where they stand academically. Based on those results, the teachers then write an individualized computer program for each of the students in the classes they were taking at their previous school. The program is based upon Mississippi standards and can be personalized to the students’ reading level.
The students spend about 85 to 90 percent of their time working at computers, where they receive lessons and take tests. As they pass a test, they move to the next lesson.
After passing the test, the students also receive a paper apple with their name on it. Hundreds of such apples decorate a tree in the school’s hallway. Program director Michael Moody said it is important to celebrate the successes of the program’s students.
“Students take ownership of it, and say, ‘Look what I did,’” he said.
The students’ programs are updated every seven to 10 days, Moody said. They also participate in a reading program and take a life skills class that teachers them lessons like balancing a checkbook and creating a budget.
“All of these students are at risk of being held back or at risk of dropping out of school,” Moody said. “For the first time in their school life, they’re experiencing success.”
As part of its $456,000-contract with Ombudsman, the Tupelo Public School District has slots for 60 students in the program. Some students rotate through those slots for one semester and others remain longer.
Last year, Tupelo Schools spent $1.04 million on the alternative school, not including costs like utilities and cleaning that it continues to pay this year.
The district currently has filled all 60 slots but can get more by paying Ombudsman $950 per month for each additional slot. They will also get open slots as students rotate back to their original school.
Assistant Superintendent Fred Hill said the district would add slots in the Ombudsman program, if needed.
“If a kid does something to the point where they need to be placed in an alternative setting, we have to make it happen,” he said.
The program is mostly composed of high school students, although there are currently 11 sixth- to eighth-graders.
April Hazzle teaches the middle school class. She said that she will walk around the classroom as the students work on their lessons on the computers. She may help them take notes or explain a lesson. During the afternoons, students discuss what they learned that day.
“Every day, you can see the steps they’re improving,” she said.
Although many of the students had had behavior problems at their former school, Moody said that since students have adjusted to the center, there has been “very little chaos.”
“Most students want a stable, safe place where they are held accountable,” he said.
Brieana, the eighth-grader, said she likes that she is able to focus on the areas where she is struggling.
“To me, it is like a private school,” she said. “You don’t have to sit and listen to a teacher teaching stuff you already know. You can work on the stuff you need to work on.”

Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@journalinc.com.