Hardin County alternative school uses therapeutic approach
By Madelynn Coldiron
There’s one incident that stands out in Principal Robert S.P. King’s mind when he thinks about what makes Hardin County’s Brown Street Education Center a different kind of alternative school:
A teacher was failing a student who had been absent and missed assignments. King said he met with the teacher and acknowledged that she had the final word over grades, but asked, “Would it make a difference if you knew that the reason she was out for those two days that she missed that big assignment was because her father raped her? Would that make a difference?”
The teacher, he said, “broke down crying, and said ‘I had no idea.’”
To King, this illustrates both the way the school looks at its students on a case-by-case basis and the way it tackles the issues that have landed students there for disciplinary reasons.
“Here, the academic is second to their social and emotional needs,” he said. “If we can’t figure out what the triggers are and what’s going on socially, no matter how great the academic program is, they won’t receive it because there’s too much chaos going on in their lives. So we overcome those social and emotional areas first and then we can really work on the academic areas.”
Photo: Teacher Milisia Bigler works with an eighth-grade student on social studies at Brown Street Alternative Center. The school has undergone sweeping changes in the 2011-12 school year, with an emphasis on the therapeutic before the academic.
King, a former associate superintendent who also still serves as the Hardin County district’s dropout prevention coordinator, made big changes at Brown Street when he took over as principal last fall. His plan to make changes was in tune with Superintendent Nannette Johnston.
“I’d been wanting to look at going in a different direction on that for some time,” she said. “The goal is everyone graduates – no one falls between the cracks.”
The school serves both middle school and high school students, who occupy different floors. There also is a separate credit recovery program for Hardin County High School students, who do not mingle with the students who are there for other issues. At mid-year, there were a total of 80 students, one-fifth of them middle school age.
Brown Street’s students come from all walks of life and circumstances, some with backgrounds of drug or alcohol abuse, physical or sexual abuse, foster care, psychiatric treatment facilities and group homes, said district school psychologist Jessica Crepps, who is based at Brown Street.
“We also have kids with really good family support that have just made some bad choices and end up here,” she said.
The difference in the school’s approach begins when a student is transferred to Brown Street, with a social and emotional assessment as the first step in a detailed data-collection process that enables King and his staff to identify students’ needs and track their progress against benchmarks at regular intervals. Parents or guardians also complete an intake survey about their child.
A behavior support plan is devised for each student, shared with the administrative team and teachers. It encompasses behaviors of concern, the reason for the behaviors, expectations and goals for the students and customized resources. Teachers get suggested strategies for dealing with the specific problems of individual students and information is shared among the professionals without breaching student confidentiality.
“What’s unique about this is after we list these behaviors, the consequences are spelled out for the student, so that way there’s no question. Because a lot of times uncertainty breeds chaos, especially with these students,” King said.
Students also use an online behavior modeling program that shows them the appropriate way to behave and also lets King know whether the bad behavior stems from a lack of understanding.
“It gives me insight into what they’re thinking,” he said. “The discipline they receive is determinant on whether they understand their behavior.”
Every student receives an individual session with a therapist once a week and participates in a group therapy session weekly – all at the school.
Crepps shares social and emotional therapy duties with a therapist from a local mental health agency – reimbursed through Medicaid at no cost to the district – who works full time at Brown Street. Students at the alternative school also have support from the district transition specialist, an academic counselor and resource officer. Crepps said the mental health agency provides an impact worker who helps students’ families with community-based resources.
King also has enlisted support from those who work in the court system, and is a familiar figure in the courtroom on behalf of his students. It’s important that the students see that someone cares and can be trusted, “because they’re waiting for us to give up on them, waiting for us to throw them away because that’s what their norm is,” he said.
The biggest challenge, Crepps said, is kids who lack coping skills to deal with their considerable anger. The staff lets them know, she said, “that no matter where they came from, that doesn’t have to be their future … and there are people who care about them that they can trust.”
Academically, the teaching staff of 11 includes three certified in special education. Content is delivered via a combination of classroom, prepackaged and online instruction. The staff works with local businesses and colleges and universities to point students to future opportunities, an important element in a student’s behavior support plan.
Middle school students are evaluated every nine weeks and high school students every semester to see if they have met the two-page checklist of program guidelines and can be sent back to their home school. King said the goal is a quick turnaround so they can be with their peers and have access to more rigorous content and extracurricular activities.
“The longer they stay in an environment like this, the harder it’s going to be for them to get out of an environment like this – research has shown that,” he said.
When they leave, their behavior support plan goes back with them, Crepps said. The transition specialist continues to mentor and check on them, as do other staff, she said.
The district picks up the tab for the psychologist and transition specialist. “It’s not the cheapest program we can run, but we need to educate that child and get him a diploma,” said school board Vice Chairman Charlie Wise.
Superintendent Johnston is worried that despite Brown Street’s progress in helping students, forces beyond its control – state budget cuts – are threatening it.
“These are the kinds of services that are being cut – from preschool services to services at the end of the spectrum where our students need additional supports critically,” she said. “If we cut these kinds of things from education, the community is going to be suffering because we’ll be supporting these students that didn’t get the help when they were in school.”