Alternative education revamp sought

Published 9:31 pm Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Suffolk Public Schools is exploring how to overhaul its alternative programs amid a call to replace Turlington Woods School in its current guise with an “enrichment academy.”

A new committee has been formed to take a fresh look at the programs, and a staff meeting to that purpose, closed to the public, was held Wednesday, school district spokeswoman Bethanne Bradshaw confirmed.

On May 24, Robert Stephens, co-founder of the Community Action Coalition of Suffolk, and Leila Baccouche-Nadeau, assistant director of the Southeastern District Parent-Teacher Association, sent a co-signed letter on the subject to Superintendent Deran Whitney.

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The letter questions the effectiveness of the current program at alternative school Turlington Wood, and suggests replacing it with an “enrichment academy” for academically failing students.

“My intent was to put this in the public domain,” Stephens said. “People started sending information and started calling me. It started to give me the fodder that I needed.”

The proposal itself was formulated by a smaller “focus group” of six, including two School Board members he declined to name, Stephens explained.

Stephens, who volunteers as a mentor at Turlington Woods, argues the district’s alternative programs have received too little attention and are failing students.

Students are being left to languish in Turlington Woods rather than rehabilitated and transitioned back into regular instruction, he says.

“In my opinion, they don’t want the public to know there are kids that are failing miserably,” he said. “We are talking about kids that are matriculating that can’t get the support that they need.”

A successful alternative program would address social issues and academics in tandem, Stephens argues.

The new school would be called Turlington Woods Preparatory School, the letter suggests, with an extended school day of 7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Each day would start with a “Drop Everything and Read (DEAR)” period, and also would feature “rigorous college prep math, science, English and social studies classes,” physical education and “visual and performing arts enrichment classes.”

Each week, students and staff would come together to “celebrate the week’s successes and accomplishments.” Here, the “Spirit Stick” would be awarded “to the student whose actions during the week best embodied the values of the campus.”

“It is time to move from a suppression-based disciplinary model at Turlington Woods to one that focuses on empowering students by providing intervention, remedial and corrective action, as needed,” the letter states.

The idea of a magnet or preparatory school, housed at the existing Turlington Woods campus, is the fruit of a “virtual dialogue” between about 18 retired educators and some current administrators, Stephens said.

Bradshaw stated it would be “inappropriate at this time” for Suffolk Public Schools to comment on the proposal, noting the district’s review of alternative education programs has only just started.

She also noted the School Board’s appointment last week of Corey D. Hamlin to the new position of supervisor of alternative education.

“His duties will include overview of alternative education programs, drop-out prevention, credit recovery, graduation coaches, and the new community service requirement for rising freshmen,” she stated.

The committee considering how to improve alternative education programs, which extend beyond Turlington Woods, includes “a cross-section of division-level and school-level administrators as well as a parent representative.”

Stephens is critical of the committee’s constitution of mostly district staff.

He fears they may gloss over what he and others consider a problem and lack the vision for a solution.

“The concern there is that if you have staff people taking a look at a program … it’s like putting icing on a mud cake,” he said.

Regarding its alternative programs, Suffolk Public Schools needs to redefine the meaning of success, Stephens said, adding this should be the committee’s first task.