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Alternative-school students do well on tests

Thomson High School's graduation rate in 2010 had eight additional students thanks to the successful alternative-school program implemented last year.

"We wanted to claim them at commencement," McDuffie Achievement Center Principal Cecil Strong said proudly. "Really, we claimed them. Oh, we claimed them."

Although not all of the students qualified or chose to walk across the stage, they did receive their high school diploma. And they are not MAC's only claim to fame.

End of Course Test scores and Georgia High School Graduation Tests scores revealed MAC students tripled their average credits earned in 2009-2010 compared to the previously-run Ombudsman program.

"We even had one student who scored the highest in the county on the CRCT," said MAC counselor Terry Miller. "And we were able to help the majority of our students go back to their home school (Thomson Middle School or Thomson High School). They made sufficient progress."

In August 2009, the McDuffie County School Board cancelled their contract with the privately-run Ombudsman program in favor of creating an in-house alternative school program that would be customized to meet the goals of the school system. Although the Ombudsman program was approximately $300,000 a year cheaper thatn the previous alternative schoo because it was a turn-key program, members of the Board of Education said they felt it did not address all the needs of students because it kept them in school only three hours a day.

Mr. Miller agrees. Since working at MAC, the counselor has discovered students who were not performing at their best level because of peer pressure or lack of support at home.

"It shows the social aspect has to be addressed before the academic can be," he said. "What they learn these eight hours might be totally different than what they walk into when they go home."

At the achievement center, the students also have the support of a motivation coach through Eddie Lee Ivery. Mr. Strong said Coach Ivery visited many of the students at their homes during the summer to make sure they were engaged in positive activities and "handyman jobs," such as mowing the grass.

McDuffie Achievement Center serves sixth through 12th grade students who are academically not up to their grade level or who have gone through discipline tribunal. Mr. Strong said they started off the year with 42 students last year, but at one point had 92 enrolled. "We like to keep the student-teacher ration lower than 16 to one," he said. "That keeps the one-on-one attention and the nurturing environment that makes success."

The school's goal is to return every student to the "larger social setting" of the regular school. When students achieve all the necessary goals at the alternative school, they return to the regular school for half a day every day for two weeks, spending the other half day in their comfortable surroundings of the alternative school.

"That way, they don't just jump back in," Mr. Strong said. "We found that works well."

The sixth through eighth grades at MAC are taught in a traditional classroom setting, rotating among academic teachers. The high school classes are computer-driven, with a teacher's aid if it is needed.

The achievement center employs nine certified teachers and seven support staff members. Mr. Miller said the custodian who passed away last May will be a big loss to the students.

"Unfortunately, we lost a great support person in Calvin Dean," Mr. Miller said. "He didn't have the educational credentials, but he was a caring person, and that's what the kids picked up on."

And, although the achievement center is more expensive than Ombudsman, it services more students. There were 53 more students tested in the middle school grades at MAC than the previous year at Ombudsman, and 23 more on the high school level. Because it's locally run, McDuffie Achievement Center employs local people, according to School Superintendent Jim LeBrun.

"It is clear that the decision to cancel the very expensive contract with Ombudsman and pay our own teachers to serve our local students was indeed a wise move on the part of our local Board of Education," Mr. LeBrun said in an email. "Not only were they able to preserve the historical Pine Street School, but they were also able to help many more students reach a higher level of academic success. It takes action such as this to positively affect the fiscal bottom line as well as the system graduation rate, which at 85.4 percent, is higher this year than it has ever been in McDuffie County."

Web posted on Thursday, August 19, 2010

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