In what McDuffie County Superintendent of Schools Mark Petersen called a "significant paradigm shift of how we educate at-risk students," members of the system's Board of Education voted last Thursday evening to close their alternative school and subcontract the educational service to a private company.
After spending several hours in discussion during their morning planning session, the McDuffie County Board of Education wasted no time in the regular meeting that evening approving unanimously to close CrossRoads Learning Center and replace it with an Ombudsman program through Educational Services of America. Board members Rick McCorkle and Dorothy Hart were not present at the meeting.
According to their website, ESA's Ombudsman service offers personalized, computer-assisted learning for middle and high school students who benefit from an alternative learning environment due to a variety of issues including truancy, credit or academic skill deficiencies, social and family challenges or learning/behavioral disorders.
"It provides a path for them to do something besides flip burgers for the rest of their lives," Dr. Petersen said during the planning meeting.
Providing a Tier 2 diploma through non-traditional methods, the Ombudsman program will consist of a split school day of three hours for high school students in the morning and four hours for middle school students in the afternoon. The students will not have homework and no meals will be provided.
McDuffie Board Vice Chair Georgia Hobbs said during the planning session that she wanted to express concern about the amount of free time, especially with leaving middle school students home alone during the first half of the day.
Suggestions were made during discussion to fill the free time with programs that encourage community outreach and teach work ethics. Dr. Petersen promised that would be taken care of when the program gets to the planning stage.
The board had to move on short notice because Thursday was the deadline to join the program and have it opened by the first day of school. Dr. Petersen also said a decision had to be made because CrossRoads Principal Steve Strouble turned in his resignation last month.
"The issue we had was Mr. Strouble was retiring, and there was going to be a change no matter what we did," he said. "So we had to make a decision."
Dr. Petersen met last Friday with the CrossRoads faculty to explain the situation and assure them that they would be transferred elsewhere in the school system to keep their jobs.
"At least that eases their mind as far as their future in the system, but everybody is still concerned about the kids," Mr. Strouble said in an interview Tuesday morning.
The CrossRoads principal said he was at the presentation Ombudsman made to the school board, which left him with the same unanswered questions posed by Mrs. Hobbs. While openly admitting he didn't understand the effectiveness of a program that "provides no meals for the kids and leaves them at home in the morning or job hunting in the afternoon," he did say he would keep an open mind and wait-and-see attitude about the program.
"I've had quite a bit of time to think about it," he said. "We always look at the whole child. It's not just the academics, there are other issues that come to bear. You have to address all those needs that they have in their lives to get them ready to learn. My greatest concern is that the kids are going to get what they need in order to be successful, and I don't want these kids lost. But if it works better than what we're doing, then great. That will be great."
Ombudsman operates existing programs in eight other Georgia school districts: Bulloch, Coffee, Effingham, Jefferson Davis, Liberty, Douglas and Toombs counties and Vidalia City.
McDuffie became the 10th district to recently sign up for the program to begin in the next school year, joining Appling, Camden, Pierce, Tattnall, Ware, Walker and Cobb counties and Marietta and Cartersville city districts.
Dr. Petersen said Ombudsman is "a turn-key program," because the cost includes the building, building operation and maintenance, staff and faculty salaries, computer equipment and curriculum.
During the planning meeting, board chair Virginia Bradshaw said she, Dr. Petersen, board member Jerry Randolph and Thomson High School Principal Rudy Falana made two visits last week to Ombudsman Learning Centers in Statesboro, where they have operated for three years.
"On the surface, it seems to be a very good program," Mr. Falana said.
Although they are typically located within the school district they serve, Ombudsman learning centers are away from the other school campuses to minimize social distractions and allow students to focus on their studies. Mrs. Bradshaw said the ones in Statesboro were in store fronts of shopping centers.
"But they were locked up so no one could just walk into them," she said. "I liked that idea and felt it was safe."
The only thing not covered in the costs of the program will be the transportation. During a press conference following the board meeting, Dr. Petersen said "there's a financial piece that's a by-product of the decision.
"It will save the local tax payers a tremendously large amount of money," he said, adding that he was not ready to quote numbers, but they were "very large." He did say it currently takes $400,000 of local funds and $280,000 of state funds to run CRLC annually.
The Ombudsman program is fully accredited by the Commission on International and Trans-Regional Accreditation (CITA), an international alliance of premier accrediting organizations including the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the National Council for Private School Accreditation and the Council on Occupational Education. According to their website, the success rate is 85 percent.
The vote had to be made so quickly, that Dr. Petersen said future plans of the CRLC building, which is the old Pine Street Elementary School, are yet to be determined.