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New board scrutinizes academic program

Suffolk Public Schools discussed its updated plans for the new Excel Academy at Driver during the Thursday night School Board meeting.

Quite a few of the School Board members were skeptical of the educational program, with concerns regarding reintegration, costs and practicality.

The Excel Academy at Driver’s mission is to provide personalized learning to students who have been struggling academically in a traditional classroom, according to Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Dr. LaToya Harrison.

The students would attend the new program for one to two years before being placed back at their home school. The first year of the program would focus on grades 4 to 7 but expand as the program matures, eventually serving students from grades 4 to 10.

“Is there proof that this works?” new board member Tyron Riddick questioned. “It seems this situation is being pacified instead of fixed. I like the idea, but I’d like a better understanding of how this will work for Suffolk.”

According to Harrison, the division has yet to identify a particular model, but there are plans to visit other school divisions that have similar programs. School administration is still doing research for the program despite planning to start it next school year.

Suffolk’s current plans for the new school program would require a rigorous vetting process, because there will only be 60 available seats for students in grades 4 through 7.

“The process begins with principals identifying students who are eligible based on the criteria established,” Harrison said.

They will look at actual academic criteria including retention, scores of Standards of Learning assessments and attendance. This program is not just for special education students, because special education students already have an Individualized Education Program that might be working.

Part of the application process requires a committee that will review each application to ensure that students with actual need will be admitted into the program.

“We want to make sure we are serving the students who have the most need. There may be more students, but the committee wants the students that have the highest need to have the service,” Harrison said.

Harrison also stressed that students that weren’t eligible or didn’t make the cut wouldn’t be forgotten. Those students that don’t make the cut will be evaluated for other accommodations that can be made in a traditional classroom.

Other concerns with the program centered around the cost of the program and the efficiency of having a program at a separate facility.

The school division has not released information regarding the cost of having new teachers, training and other support staff at the new facility. At the September meeting, the School Board approved a Capital Improvements Plan that included $5 million for repairs to the old building, including heating, ventilation and air conditioning, sewer repair, roof repair and bathroom updates.

Last week, four of those board members retired, and four newly elected ones took their place. Now, some members of the board are questioning why the school administration would open a facility for the program rather than house it at individual schools in the area.

“We are looking at a reconstruction project plus all the additional staff. That’s a lot of money,” new board member Sherri Story said.

Both Story and Riddick questioned what the school administration plans to do about busing students across the city, because they believe there is already a problem with that.

“There are a lot of ways to approach alternative programs, but one of the benefits to doing it in this manner is the ability to consolidate in one location,” Harrison said. “Specialized training and resources might not be cost effective in every school.”

Riddick also provided questions that Harrison did not have immediate answers for concerning the reintegration process for the students after they complete the program.

Harrison and other school administration still have research and development to do before they roll out the program before the new school year begins.