By Mike Marsee
A new method of recognizing excellence in alternative programs is providing another means of changing opinions about what those programs are doing.
The Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) has recognized 11 Alternative Programs of Distinction. Four of those alternative programs, representing three districts, have been identified as the best of the best in hopes that they can be held up as models for other programs in the state.
“We need to change the perception of alternative programs,” said Sherri Clusky, a program consultant with KDE’s Division of Student Success. “We want an alternative program to be a place that’s different than the student’s original home school, but also a place where a student gets a quality education. People shouldn’t think of it as a dumping ground for students or a dumping ground for staff. An alternative program should just be a different way to get to graduation.
Programs in the Bullitt County, Calloway County and Covington Independent districts have found different ways to accomplish the objectives shared by all alternative programs.
“We felt like they were our three strongest alternative sites,” Clusky said. “We want people from other districts to go and see these programs because we saw excellence happening.”
Clusky said each of these successful programs has some things in common.
“In the programs that were visited, I saw incredible things going on, and it’s always a commitment from the central office, all the staff at the school,” she said. “And when I say all staff, I truly mean all staff at the school. Those are the places that have phenomenal programs.
“The alternative program is not located in an old, beaten-down building. They have the resources to do what they need to do. That’s how they are able to produce good results from their alternative programs and prepare students that wouldn’t typically graduate from school to be college- and career-ready.”
She said that’s what all alternative programs should be working toward.
“I talk to students on the site visits, and they always tell me, ‘I wouldn’t graduate if it wasn’t for this alternative program,’” Clusky said.
Data drives four-year turnaround in Bullitt County
Brenda Pirtle, director of secondary schools in Bullitt County, said the Bullitt Alternative Center has made a tremendous investment in gathering data on every student.
“I don’t think that was there in the past,” Pirtle said. “It’s very instructionally focused now with the collection of data and making sure kids are in the right place instructionally.”
Bullitt County schools superintendent Keith Davis said strong leadership at the building level has turned around what “was not a good program four years ago.” He directed the credit to Pirtle and Principal Angela Bibelhauser.
“It’s all about students in our program, building relationships, keeping them accountable,” Bibelhauser said. “They know that we care and that’s where we have to start out. Then (we) look at where they’re at as far as their future — Are they going to college? Are they going into a career? How do we get them the credits? How do they learn? – and meeting their learning styles to make sure they stay engaged.”
Pirtle said one way to engage students is by celebrating their successes to keep them focused on where they should be headed. Graduation pictures hang on the wall to give students a glimpse of what could be.
“We give them a vision for where they need to be and what their future holds for them,” Pirtle said. “So it (the alternative center) is not just a placeholder to keep them out of the high schools and the middle schools; it’s intentional instruction. They do all of the things that the high school students do–they formulate their goals, they become college- and career-ready – and I think four years ago you could not say that.”
Calloway County board committed to its programs
The Calloway Alternative Education Center and Calloway County Day Treatment were recognized for excellence, and Travis Anderson, the principal at the facility that houses both of them, said both are able to stand out because of a strong commitment from the board of education.
“They’ve really shown a commitment to the kids,” Anderson said. “Some students need that alternative pathway, and the board of education does a phenomenal job of giving us the support we need financially and otherwise to do our job. The board of education has supported the alternative program from day one, for 18 years now, and it’s really been a staple since the program began.”
Clusky said the dedication to alternative programs in the district even extends to people who are no longer directly involved with the district.
“A former board member came to meet with us to say how he feels about the alternative program. He felt like alternative programs have to be available so that all kids can get to graduation,” she said. “The commitment is there from the central office and the community, working to make these kids successful. They have an older facility, but it’s spotless. They take pride in their school and the kids take care of it.”
Anderson is a first-year principal, but both of the programs he leads previously were recognized when KDE highlighted best-practice sites from 2009 to 2014. The day treatment center was recognized three times and the alternative education center twice.
“We have a dedicated group of teachers and staff, a supportive board of education, and a new compassionate director, and the community supports both programs,” supervisor of instruction Stephanie Wyatt said.
Relationship with children’s home a plus for Covington
The Covington Alternative Programs are housed in a new building on the Children’s Home of Northern Kentucky campus and serve both resident and nonresident students. The arrangement appears to be beneficial to both parties.
“I think that we provide the academic piece and then the children’s home provides the therapeutic piece,” director Tony Perkins said. “Through that marrying of services, we feel we’ve really produced a high quality product.”
Clusky said the two entities are working well together.
“There’s a remarkable commitment by the group home and by the school district,” she said. “They have a beautiful facility that compares to any program in the state, and the teachers and everybody are working hard to do what’s best for kids.”
Perkins said there is a conscious effort to develop strong relationships with the students.
“We do a lot of testing to find out where kids are when they get there and where they are when they leave,” he said. “We try to make sure we have relationships with all the kids in our program. We have kids who don’t want to leave because they have relationships there. They don’t want to go back to the other school.”
Assistant Principal Lorie Duffy said program staffers visit students on a weekly basis once they transition back to traditional classrooms. The program also has a number of services, including a transformational learning center, day treatment, an adult high school and alternative-to-suspension and alternative-to-expulsion programs.
“We feel like we have a full continuum of care to meet whatever needs are presented to us,” Duffy said.
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Sherri Clusky firstname.lastname@example.org
Angela Bibelhauser email@example.com
Brenda Pirtle firstname.lastname@example.org
Travis Anderson email@example.com
Stephanie Wyatt firstname.lastname@example.org
Lorie Duffy email@example.com
Tony Perkins firstname.lastname@example.org