Calvert County school administrators and members of the Board of Education lauded the first-year results of the county's new Alternative School last week, and the school's lead teacher pushed to expand the program in coming years.
The county opened the Alternative School last year after seeing a steady increase in the number of student suspensions. Students who were at risk of expulsion, dropping out or endangering others were brought under one roof with teachers who could focus exclusively on preparing them academically and socially to return to their home schools.
Michael Corrigan, the school's lead teacher, presented statistics to the school board that showed a major reduction in suspensions for students who went through the Alternative School last year.
The school enrolled 49 students from the county's middle and high schools. Students sent to the school stayed for a minimum of 45 days. Before those students entered the alternative program, they had accumulated a total of 157 suspensions since the beginning of the school year. After leaving the program and returning to standard classrooms, those students incurred a total of 14 suspensions during the remainder of the 2004-05 term.
"It's promising, no question about it, but we're just in our first year," Corrigan said. "We need to track these kids to make sure it's a continuing trend."
The concept of an alternative school has appeared in several forms over the past two decades in Calvert. In the 1980s, Calvert started an alternative school but closed it a few years later for reasons including cost, space and effectiveness, said Kathryn Coleman, director of student services.
The school system tried using similar programs that operate regionally and made smaller efforts in individual high schools. The new countywide Alternative School opened last year after the school system secured funding through the county budget and a grant.
The resurgence of alternative schooling in Calvert County reflects a nationwide trend, education experts say. According to a series of studies published in High School Journal in 1998, alternative schools have been around in some form since the early 1900s and have recently made a comeback as violence and serious behavioral problems -- or at least public perceptions of such problems -- have increased.
Most students assigned to the Calvert County Alternative School are sent there for a minimum of 45 days after disciplinary hearings for serious offenses at school. Fights, drug use and chronic classroom disruptions are examples of serious offenses.
Physically, the school consists of two double-wide gray trailers near the tennis courts at Calvert High School. The structure is divided into four classrooms, and the staff includes three teachers, two assistants, a special education teacher and a part-time counselor.
The school can take up to about 20 students at a time. Advantages of the program include the low student-to-teacher ratio, the flexible schedule, and the opportunity for more one-on-one teaching and counseling, Corrigan said.
"It's a smaller class, different kind of instruction," he said. "Sometimes just removing a kid from their school for 45 days gives them a chance to realize more about themselves."
"It seems like it's going really well," said Board of Education President William J. Phalen Sr. after hearing Corrigan's presentation last week. "The board was really thrilled to hear about the success so far."
Corrigan and Coleman said they hope to build on the initial progress and suggested expanding the school with more content-specific teachers, a full-time guidance counselor and, eventually, a separate building.
"With all that, we could have more flexible hours and capture some of the students who have already dropped out, who work in the day but can come at night, who are fathers or mothers already," Corrigan said. "That's my vision down the road."
School board members have not discussed an expansion, Phalen said, and such a move would require a recommendation from the superintendent and staff.
"But I think the board would be very open to expanding if it's recommended," he said.