Prince William School Superintendent Edward L. Kelly announced a plan last week to rework the county's alternative education system, saying the restructuring is necessary to reach students who learn in different ways.

Some of the changes outlined in the plan are broad, while others call for expanding programs already in place. But Kelly said the biggest shift will come in the way the system thinks of alternative education, long considered a punitive option for students with behavioral problems.

"Sometimes there's a negative connotation when you say, 'We're going to put a youngster in an alternative education program,' and what we'd like to do is get away from that," Kelly told the School Board.

For instance, specialty school programs in place at some middle and high schools could be considered a form of alternative education, he said.

Students can be referred to an alternative program by a "transition coordinator," a new staff position created under this plan. The transition coordinator would be in charge of creating an alternative education plan for each student.

"We weren't meeting the needs of some of these students," Kelly said. To attempt to do so, "we're creating a different process than what we have ever had before."

In addition to creating the transition coordinator position, the proposed alternative education program would include several other changes. Among them: New Dominion Alternative Education School would become a 120-student school serving grades six through 12; the school currently serves grades six through eight. That's about 40 to 50 fewer students than the number currently served by New Dominion and Pennington, the alternative education high school.

A summer transition program would be created for rising middle and high school students. Two GED programs, on the eastern and western ends of the county, would be operated for 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds. Middle and high school students who can work without supervision will be offered an independent study program. County night school programs, which now offer only history, government and English, would expand their course offerings to include some math and science classes.

In addition, individual schools would be encouraged to create their own programs and to keep students at their base school, Kelly said.

A price tag for these changes will be presented to the School Board in February along with the entire school budget. The School Board will be asked to approve the changes in concept at its next meeting on Jan. 26.

Some parents of students at New Dominion said they approved of some of the proposals, but viewed other changes more warily.

"Mixing these age groups from grades six to 12--that sounds kind of scary," said Caroline Croxford, whose son, Patrick, 14, is in eighth grade at New Dominion. Even if they're kept separate as the proposal states, she said, "you still have to bus them together, and it's not a very big school."

Vera Hill, whose son, Robert, is also 14 and in the eighth grade at New Dominion, says creating different programs is a positive change.

"As long as you've got teachers to do the work, I don't see the problem," Hill said. "Give them the options, so they have no excuse not to get a diploma."