Alternative to suspension keeps kids in classroom

hirschWhen Michelle Hirsch walked into Mr. Robert Harding’s classroom at Pueblo Middle School, the 15 kids seated attentively at their desks might have been A students in an accelerated honors program. But they weren’t.
These were kids who had been kicked out of regular classrooms around the district and who had elected, with an OK from their parents, to spend their suspensions in a class designed to fix the problems that brought them into Harding’s domain.
Whether they’ve been suspended for a few days or a few weeks, these “problem” kids get a carefully crafted mix of academic and behavioral help, designed to beef up their ability to function successfully in a conventional classroom environment.
So far, say district officials, the concept is working. Only about 10 percent of the kids who complete the program are re-suspended after returning to their regular schools.
“I was really impressed with these kids,” says Hirsch, a Kyrene school board member on a mission to see the program first-hand.
“They weren’t slouched down in their seats, they didn’t show an ‘attitude;’ they were really engaged in what Mr. Harding was telling them.”
What Harding tells these kids, all of whom have been excluded from regular classrooms because of inappropriate behavior, isn’t a packaged, one-size-fits-all pitch. It’s a highly individualized curriculum deftly configured by Harding and the program’s other four teachers to address each child’s specific needs.
Overseeing the teachers’ work is Diane Peters, a former assistant principal at Kyrene Middle School who came out of retirement to head an initiative known as KASP, for Kyrene Alternative to Suspension Program.
The program was launched in 2004, helped along by a $180,000 grant that paid for all but $20,000 of its operational funds, which ended up being allocated by the Kyrene district. Yet, despite the program’s success, it may have to be discontinued next year because the grant money has dried up and the district can’t afford to go it alone.
“This would be a real tragedy,” said Hirsch. “This (program) has provided a way for the district to catch some of the kids who otherwise would fall through the cracks. It gives them coping skills. It minimizes the dropout rate.”
Although students who have been suspended tend to be branded as problem children, the truth is that many are simply acting out as a result of difficulty at home, economic problems, death of a parent or other conditions that are beyond the child’s control, says Hirsch.
“The program can’t fix these kinds of issues, but it can teach the child how to do a better job of coping,” she said.
In such cases, Hirsch says, the fix can be relatively simple. “It may be something as easy as remembering to put their homework in their backpack.”
Indeed, there are cases in which the road to improvement may not be so simple to navigate. A student who is suspended for threatening a teacher may have a number of issues that need to be addressed, which illustrates the value of a targeted action plan adopted for each participating child.
Although the program has been widely accepted by Kyrene parents, some still won’t let their child participate, Hirsch says.
“Sometimes the parents are defensive and feel that their child shouldn’t be in a program with kids whose behavior may be worse than theirs,” she said. And sometimes they don’t want the child to be away from his or her regular school for three weeks—the length of the program even if the suspension is for only a few days.
If funds are not forthcoming next year, the program won’t generate discussion because it won’t be available.
Kelly Alexander, the Kyrene district’s administrator in charge of the program, says one hope is that parents and other community members will help offset the reduced funding by donating to the non-profit Kyrene Education Association.
For information about the program or how to make a donation, call 480-783-2431.

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