School board members in Montgomery County got their first detailed look this week at a plan to turn around the district’s beleaguered alternative-education program for students in middle schools and high schools.
The changes would include personalized student learning plans and new electives in art, music and physical education. Class sizes would be small — about 10 students — with new options including evening courses, online classes, project-based learning and internships.
Many students who are enrolled in Montgomery’s alternative programs have had chronic problems with academics, behavior and absenteeism, and some have been recommended for expulsion as a result of school offenses. High school dropout rates are steep and success has been limited, officials said.
“Our redesign plan is still a work in progress, but every day, we are moving the needle,” said Ira K. Thomas, the principal of alternative programs, who was appointed in 2012 as the district looked to remake its program.
Thomas told the board at its Monday night meeting that the new plan is rooted in a personalized approach that will include social-emotional learning and mental-health support and services.
“Our new design is aimed at addressing what has become for many of our students in alt-ed a school-to-prison pipeline. . . .” he said. “We want to stop that.”
Nationally, schools have struggled to provide high-quality alternative education, and Montgomery has “shared in that struggle,” said Superintendent Joshua P. Starr. With the new program, Starr said, the district is seeking results for students, including seeing improvement on dropout and attendance rates.
County school data show great room for improvement: With the graduation rate at nearly 87.4 percent for all students, it is 8.9 percent for alternative-education students who don’t return to their home high schools.
Similarly, 88.2 percent of all Montgomery students pass the state’s algebra exam, but the data indicated that 14.2 percent of alternative-education students receive passing marks.
“We’re looking for better outcomes for these students,” said Board of Education member Judith Docca (Gaithersburg).
Board member Christopher S. Barclay (Silver Spring) said that for years, alternative programs were “kind of the ugly stepchild” of the school system, with students almost “banished” to them.
Board Vice President Patricia O’Neill called the effort a “gigantic step” in a new direction. “I have great expectations that we will be making a tremendous difference for children,” she said.
Most students in Montgomery’s alternative programs are from families facing poverty, officials said, and about 88 percent are African American or Hispanic.
Christopher Garran, associate superintendent for high schools, spoke of the district’s obligation and responsibility to serve all students better.
“I don’t think, as a district, to be honest, we can claim to be about equity if we are unwilling to pull the curtain back on those places where we might need to do more work, and one of those places is alternative programs,” he said.
At any time, 125 students are enrolled in Montgomery’s alternative program. Garran said he hopes a redesign will spark more interest in a program that could be helpful to other students who might struggle in more traditional settings.
The plan would consolidate alternative programs at the Blair G. Ewing Center in Rockville, he said. The full plan would roll out over a three-year period, officials said.
Teacher Meredith Gramlich said that efforts now underway — career planning, speaker visits, job opportunities — are having an effect.
“Some of our most disengaged students are coming to school, asking for help and beginning to plan for the future,” Gramlich said.