By Terri Darr McLean
The 135 alternative programs in Kentucky school districts will be operating under a new and stricter set of guidelines soon.
The state Board of Education is close to finalizing a new regulation for the programs, which could take effect as early as next February.
“We have some really, really good alternative programs in the state,” said Sherri Clusky, who works with those programs at the state education department’s Division of Student Success. “And by having a regulation, you’re going to have a more consistent look as far as alternative programs. All alternative programs are going to have to meet minimum requirements of how to operate in each district if they have a program.”
PHOTO: While her teacher, Mike Kash, observes, Jama Day, a student at Rowan County Schools’ Bluegrass Discovery Academy, works on her cooking skills. Each Wednesday the students cook a complete meal from scratch to help them with life skills.
Currently, for example, there is no real consistency in criteria for enrolling students into and transitioning them out of the programs, in student assessment, in professional development for teachers, or in academic rigor. Nor is there consistency in access to resources, such as instructional materials, tutoring, and intervention and counseling services. Alternative programs serve both at-risk students and those who simply learn best in a nontraditional setting.
The issue came to the forefront in 2007, when the Kentucky Board of Education began expressing concern about “warehousing” students in these alternative programs. The board commissioned two investigations, one by the Kentucky Center for School Safety and the other by Kentucky Youth Advocates. Both pointed up a host of problems and widely varying quality among programs across the state.
In response, the education department implemented an action plan to address the deficiencies, including establishing quality standards.
But the proposed regulation goes further. Clusky said the minimum requirements it will establish will enable KDE to assure that all students are college and career ready, including those in alternative programs.
Paula Stafford, the assistant principal of Rowan County Middle School and administrator for the district’s alternative programs — including one named a KDE Best Practice Site — thinks the regulation will mean major changes for a majority of programs.
“Most alternative programs in the state are going to have some pretty big changes to make in terms of curriculum that’s offered to kids, in terms of the rigor of classwork that’s offered to kids, in terms of following a process of placing students there … having everybody with a common understanding that this is the kind of things you need to earn an English 1 credit, this is the kind of work you need to do to earn a whatever credit.”
In addition to setting minimum requirements for the operation, the regulation is designed to collect important program and student data that have, to date, been missing.
“We’re asked from time to time how many students are in alternative programs, where the alternative programs are … we didn’t have good, concrete answers. So that’s why we felt like it was time to focus in and say we need this information on all schools, all programs in the state,” Clusky said.
“Programs that are doing well and doing the things they need to be doing will feel little impact from the regulation,” she added. “It will be more about getting to make sure we’re getting the data we need … more reflection about the data.”
This is the second go-round for an alternative education regulation. The first version generated so much comment from stakeholders that the department started over again, Clusky said.
Rowan County’s Stafford said if the changes ensure that students in alternative schools get the same education as those in a district’s main schools, it will be worth the effort.
“Just as with any regulation, if it’s implemented with fidelity, what it will really mean for our students is a quality education,” she said. “So ultimately I think if the regulation is implemented correctly... our kids who leave the alternative school and either come back to the regular school building or those who are graduating to go to the work force or secondary schooling are going to be much better prepared. And that should be the bottom line for any of us.”
— McLean is a writer from Lexington