Monday, October 29, 2001

Alternative school thrives under new leader

By Sarah Buehrle
Enquirer Contributor

        COVINGTON — The city's alternative school, once criticized, is now straightened up, flying right and under the supervision of a retired Marine.

        Holmes Alternative School, for children with behavioral problems, was given a clean bill of health last week by the Kentucky Office of Education Accountability after being under fire for numerous problems.

        In March and April, the OEA investigated issues at four Covington schools, including Holmes Alternative, formerly known as the Covington Academy of Renewal Education. It found the following problems at CARE: Only one part-time psychologist was on staff; limited access to textbooks and teacher guides; and some individual students' needs could not be met because of class size.

        “People was just doing whatever they wanted to,” said Krystal Gary, a freshman in her second year at Holmes Alternative School. “They [staff] weren't setting down the rules. People weren't taking them seriously.” Lack of documentation was another problem within the program, according to the OEA. There were no clear admission criteria at CARE. Also lacking was doc umented monitoring of student progress and of written exit criteria.

        But Thursday's letter said that the OEA does not intend to conduct further investigations into the Covington special education programs because the district is making “great efforts” to correct issues cited in a May 24 OEA report. The letter said that significant changes have already occurred. “I'm especially proud of what the alternative school has done,” Covington Independent Schools superintendent Jack Morelandsaid. “We've been able to refocus the school. Rather than being a holding pen for students who were having trouble in the tradi tional schools, we're about teaching and learning there just like we are at our other schools.”

        Students in the alternative school are from Holmes Junior High School and Holmes High School, and are 12 to 17 years old. Some have juvenile records or were expelled from their original school. Many are transferred to the alternative program because they have behavioral problems coupled with problems such as low grades, according to new Holmes Alternative School director Mike Wills, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel.

        The goal of the alternative

        school is to provide students with the help they need to transition back to their original school or into an adult education facility.

        “There are some people who think that an alternative school is there to punish. I don't buy that,” Mr. Wills said. “Boot camps do work, but they work better within the court system. Schools have to be nurturing and do what is best for the kids.”

        Mr. Wills said that new evaluation tools and more staff training have improved the program since the OEA review. The school has created new admission and exit criteria. Staff at the Holmes High School and Junior High must prove that they have tried intervention with a student before the student is sent to the alternative school.

        Staff members are trained in crisis management and the alternative program has hired a second certified social worker. The curriculum has been aligned to coincide with those at Holmes High School and Junior High. Staff members provide weekly feedback to parents, and behavior-monitoring forms for each student have been implemented.

        The number of students at the alternative school, which peaked at about 140last year with a staff of 50, has been reduced to 38 with a staff of 21. Before the changes, there were elementary students in the alternative program with the junior and high school students.

        The school's new maximum capacity is expected to be 70students, Mr. Moreland said.

        Krystal Gary said that she likes the changes at the school. She said that teachers are more involved with the students; staff members brought in Cincinnati's School for Creative and Performing Arts representatives to look at her poetry.

        “Now you can get work done,” Krystal said.

        Eric Hughes, in the program for three years, said that he is transitioning back to Holmes. He attends his original school for three-quarters of the day, but chooses to go back to the alternative pro gram for a math class. He said that program is helping him to feel confident about going back to Holmes.

        “This time they actually care about the students making it back to Holmes,” Eric, 15, said. “Going back up there, it kinda boosts my confidence.”

        Temporarily housed in rented space in the Northern Kentucky Community Center, Holmes Alternative is scheduled to move to a 13,500-square-foot space at a former YMCA by Jan. 31.The alternative program will be on one level, and will include classrooms, an eating area and computer rooms, according to director of budget and finance for Covington Independent schools Rodney Fisk. There will be social service organizations located in the building for the students.

        The YMCA lease is $7,875 a month for five years, with an option to renew, according to Mr. Fisk. The school is currently paying $4,000 a month at the Northern Kentucky Community Center.


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