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Planning of new alternative school continues

Brandi Strickland admits it: Her grades and attitude haven't always been the best. She had trouble getting along with some of her teachers at Thomson-McDuffie Junior High School. So she ended up as a participant in the Ombudsman program.

"Ombudsman made it to where I can do my work faster and I get along with my teachers here," she said. "I was failing every class at the junior high, but since I've gotten here, every subject is better. If you look at my grades before September when I came here and now, there's a big difference."

The 2008-2009 school year was one of change for students like Brandi. As the first bell of the school year tolled last August, the doors of Ombudsman opened. It was a new alternative program for students, one that school board members unanimously approved in favor of closing the existing CrossRoads Learning Center last spring.

Now, students will see another summer of transition. Last month, school board trustees voted to end the school system's relationship with Ombudsman and open their own alternative program. Since then, they've hired Cecil Strong as the program's principal, and are planning to use the old CrossRoad's building for students next school year.

"I'm willing to extend my arms out to the community to say 'What are you going to do to help?'" Mr. Strong said. "If you're just there to point a finger and blame, that's not going to work. We're all part of the same system. Each one of us knows what is needed to make a good program."

Swell of support

When Crossroads closed last year, the school board fielded several complaints that trustees didn't take enough time to consider other options before implementing the Ombudsman program. A year later, the school board is hearing similar concerns: This time, they didn't take enough time before voting to do away with Ombudsman.

"It's only been here one year, so they just didn't give it a chance," said sophomore Shontavious Bonner, who has been a student at both CRLC and Ombudsman. "It's a good school. Even though it's only three hours, I get a lot of work done. All the teachers here help me. Here, we can stay focused, because it's so quiet. I've got to get my education. I have two little girls (a 1-year-old and a 6-month-old) and they need to give me a chance to get my education."

Since the school board's vote to end Ombudsman's contract, students in the program and their parents have attended a school board meeting to speak in favor of Ombudsman and signed a petition requesting the board to reconsider their decision.

"I've never seen anybody here from the school board, except (Superintendent Mark) Petersen," Brandi said. "They don't know if it's working, because they don't come check on us."

Ombusman supporters point to the Thomson center's 82 percent attendance rate, average increases of more than two grade levels in language mechanics, spelling and vocabulary, and one grade level in mathematics, according to John Wacha, the assistant vice president for center operations of Ombudsman.

"Honey, this child has learned a lot," Quinetta Finch said of her son, Gregory, a student at Ombudsman. "At first when I heard about it (Ombudsman), I thought it was something bad. And then when I looked into it, it's more better than CrossRoads (Ms. Finch's stepdaughter attended CrossRoads). When I observed Ombudsman, I said it's kind of like a little college a little bit."

A better plan

Board member Bob Smith, who made the recommendation to terminate the Ombudsman contract, said while he was campaigning for the board seat, he received "numerous complaints" about Ombudsman. Mr. Smith said he was the one responsible for first bringing in the CrossRoads school while he was principal of Thomson High School. He said he believes a better, custom-made alternative program can be made "in-house." Mr. Smith acknowledged that he never visited the Ombudsman program or verified the complaints that he heard.

Part of the school board's concern is the amount of time each day students spend in the program. The students, who are in grades six through 12, attend Ombudsman only three to four hours a day, said Mr. Smith. That's something board member Ella Mae Samuels also doesn't like.

"I have not been pleased with the amount of time they stay there versus the amount of time that they are free," Rev. Samuels said. "Nothing has been put in place to keep them off the streets or whatever. It's just that I feel when children that age are unsupervised for that length of time, it's just a possibility that we are setting them up to get in trouble."

The question of money

One of the problems with the current discussion about Ombudsman and CrossRoads is a lack of tangible data. Assistant Superintendent in Curriculum and Instruction Barry O'Neill said he could not provide an academic or attendance comparison of Ombudsman and CrossRoads because the CrossRoads records are not available.

There are, however, money numbers.

School system comptroller Tom Smalley said salaries, utilities, food delivery and miscellaneous expenses of the CrossRoads school exceeded Ombudsman by $474,712.

However, there are those that dispute the true savings the school system may have experienced with Ombudsman.

Thomson High School teacher Robert Anthony - the lone person to respond to series of e-mail requests and phone calls from The McDuffie Mirror seeking complaints about the Ombudsman program - said the $400,000 savings figure doesn't take into account the difference in number of students served.

"Of course it's cheaper, because they are only teaching half the number of students," he said. (enrollment at Ombudsman is 60, and CrossRoads ranged from 70-90). "And they've kicked them right back out because of discipline problems, so where are they supposed to go? We have to have a place for students with discipline problems."

Moving forward

Still, Mr. Smalley cautions that the school system will likely lose those savings if officials reinstate a local alternative program. At recent alternative school planning sessions and budget work sessions, officials have discussed the obstacles, including the condition of the old Pine Street facility, the furniture and computers have either been auctioned or absorbed into the system, the expense of getting a new telephone system and computer system, and hiring a new faculty.

Board member Rick McCorkle suggested checking into getting unused equipment from other schools.

"We don't want junk," he said. "But surely the principals could go through their stock and find stuff they're not using."

Board chairwoman Georgia Hobbs said she thinks they need to use new, or almost-new, computers, because the program runs on mainly computer-assisted teaching.

Mr. Smith said he'd like them to check into using stimulus funds to begin the program. Mr. Smalley and Assistant Superintendent Barry O'Neill are checking into the restrictions and specifications of using the funds, most of which are Title 1 or Special Education grants. To qualify for Title 1 grants, every school that feeds into the alternative program - Thomson High, Thomson-McDuffie Junior High and Thomson Middle schools - have to be Title 1 school. Currently, only the elementary schools in McDuffie County are Title 1.

One thing on school leaders' wish lists for a new alternative school program is better communication. For example, Thomson Middle School Principal Claude Powell said it's hard to track students when there's no discussion between schools.

"When they go to the alternative school, they are still my kids," he said. "If they are suspended or expelled from that school, I don't know about it, but it still counts on my Annual Yearly Progress reports. At CrossRoads, there was little or no communication, and Ombudsman has been the same way."

Web posted on Thursday, May 14, 2009

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