The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An alternative school is opening for kids with behavior issues — some as young as 5

Charles County Public Schools’ Fresh Start Academy will be located at the Robert D. Stethem Educational Center in Pomfret, Md.
Charles County Public Schools’ Fresh Start Academy will be located at the Robert D. Stethem Educational Center in Pomfret, Md. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

POMFRET, Md. — The walls need paint, the floors are bare and it could be November before children are seated in classrooms. But here, in Southern Maryland, Kimberly Hill sees her surroundings as a solution to increasingly disruptive behavior by the very young.

This space will soon become an alternative school — the kind of separate setting often geared to teenagers who have gotten into trouble. But this one is for the littlest learners, children just beginning school: 5, 6 or 7 years old, in kindergarten and first and second grades.

Critics find the idea appalling. But Hill and her school system in Charles County are pushing ahead, sparking a debate that has touched on racial disparities, children’s well-being, classroom disruptions, legal issues and community trust.

“We just need a chance to open and show everyone what a good program this will be,” Hill, the schools superintendent in Charles County, said as she surveyed progress on building renovations one recent day.

Hill and others say the alternative school will be small and well staffed, with a therapeutic focus. It is not intended to punish students, they say, but to help them learn to regulate emotions and behaviors and return to their home schools.

Opponents see harm rather than help — arguing that it will label children as troubled when they have just started out. They assert children so young should not be removed from their home schools, and they say the plan will have the effect of segregating black students, who are disproportionately suspended and expelled in Charles County.

“You are setting our children up for a lifetime of stigma by separating them from their peers, particularly at such a young age,” Chanell Gaines, an African American mother of three young sons, told the county school board at a hearing several months ago.

“We are sending the message that our children don’t belong, that something is wrong with them,” she said.

Several state lawmakers have been critical of the school — called Fresh Start Academy — as have advocates with the Charles County branch of the NAACP, Disability Rights Maryland and several other state and national advocacy organizations.

“This issue has opened a wound in our community,” said Dyotha Sweat, president of the county branch of the NAACP, who said she finds it “barbaric” to create a separate school in the 27,000-student system rather than add specialists and resources to traditional schools.

Elsewhere in Maryland, some school systems have alternative programs for younger students, but approaches are varied.

Barbara Fedders, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law who has studied alternative schools, said she is skeptical that enough meaningful data exists on children so young to suggest the need for a separate placement. Also, she pointed out, not every child starts school with the benefit of prekindergarten, which helps with adjustment.

Research on alternative schools across all grade levels, Fedders said, shows problems at many schools nationally: “They do not improve academic outcomes, they contribute to student disengagement, and they fuel segregation by race and disability status,” she said.

Charles County education leaders say that their school will be voluntary, used when other interventions are exhausted, and that they will involve parents throughout the process. Children would stay a minimum of four weeks but possibly several months.

They say they hope their program will spur others in Maryland to follow their lead.

“We are anticipating that we will be a model for the state and that we will have folks coming to see the success of our program and our students,” said Amy Hollstein, the deputy superintendent of schools and a leader on the project.

She noted an increased focus nationally on children with adverse childhood experiences who need extra support.

Advocacy organizations opposing the school worry Charles County is circumventing a state law passed in 2017 that banned suspensions and expulsions of young children, except under narrow circumstances.

Suspended from school in early grades

“We don’t want this to become the new workaround for dealing with behavior problems,” said Renuka Rege, an attorney with the nonprofit Public Justice Center, which has joined other groups opposing the school.

Hill, the Charles superintendent, disputes any such suggestion. “Absolutely not,” she said. “It is not a way to circumvent any state law. That’s not how we operate.”

Fresh Start Academy, to cost $452,000 a year, is slated to enroll six to eight students at any time in its first “pilot” year. Building renovations were $429,000, with plans for a calming “sensory room” and three classrooms, each with two-way observation windows, to allow others to learn from strategies being used.

Charles County school officials said they do not have money or space to bring a similar program into the system’s 22 elementary schools — as many critics have urged. They said they have made changes in response to concerns and named a community advisory panel.

“The goal of this program is not to segregate, or to make a child feel like a bad kid,” said Hill, a onetime principal who has been at the helm as superintendent for six years. “It’s really to help them gain some skills to successfully transition back to the regular school.”

School board chairman Virginia McGraw said she sees Fresh Start as an early intervention that will improve a student’s chances for success and help prevent alternative-school enrollment down the line.

Critics may not realize the carefully thought-out and documented process involved in selecting students, she said; at least 30 days of behavioral data will be examined.

“I want to be proactive if we see a child who needs supports,” she said.

Several teachers speaking out in support of the new school at the hearing described chaos in their classrooms, recalling when a child had thrown chairs, toppled desks or assaulted classmates or educators. Other students miss learning time, they said.

Ki’Tira Shorter, a first-grade teacher at Berry Elementary School, spoke of having to “master the art of evacuating my classroom” because of “dangerous disruptions.”

“These students, who are clearly calling out for more help by destroying classrooms, assaulting teachers and running away, will learn strategies to manage their emotions and impulses at the Fresh Start Academy by teachers who will care and love for them,” she said.

Parent Jai Branch said her daughter was hit in the face with a book one day in first grade when a classmate had an outburst. The class was often evacuated to the library, she said.

Teachers are not trained therapists, she said, and some students are traumatized, needing more intensive support. She is not sure whether Fresh Start is the answer, she said, but “we can’t continue to ignore what’s happening. And is it fair to all the rest of the kids in the class? People should be working together.”

Critics have complained that school officials told the public about the program after it was already in the making and without providing data or research to back up their plan.

They agree that students and teachers need more support but say a separate school is not the way to go.

Many see race as an issue, pointing out that while black children account for 55 percent of students in Charles County, they represent nearly 80 percent of students suspended and expelled, according to the most recent state data.

Most teachers are white, as is true in many school systems.

Del. Debra M. Davis (D-Charles County) also cites a lack of diversity in school system leadership. Identifying and separating children at an early age contributes to a school-to-prison pipeline, she argued.

“It targets black, brown and poor kids,” she said.

James Person, a father of three, said the school system is too quick to label black boys as disciplinary problems rather than looking deeper at their social, emotional or academic struggles. He said his son might have been selected for the alternative school if it had been operating when he was in the early grades.

“We know what that school is going to look like: It’s going to be 90 percent black,” he said.

Person also said he is stunned by the age of the children who would be enrolled at Fresh Start. “Eighteen months before, you might have been changing their diapers. They were just starting to walk and run. And now you want to put them in alternative school?”

Another parent, Esther Williams, said children so young are unformed. “They are still trying to find themselves,” she said.

Hill said the idea for the school goes back three years, when principals reported an increase in children with excessive, disruptive and dangerous behaviors. “We started to monitor this and brainstorm and look around for what was going on in other districts,” she said.

One inspiration came from the northern part of the state, she said.

For more than 15 years, Carroll County has run an alternative program called P.R.I.D.E. for children in kindergarten to fifth grade. It is located in a portable classroom at an elementary school, and students are integrated with the rest of the campus for activities including lunch, recess and art, said Cynthia A. McCabe, chief of schools in Carroll County. Students typically spend eight weeks to four months in the program, which enrolls about 30 children a year.

Most students who participate go back to their home schools and are successful, McCabe said.

The debate in Charles County took a legal turn in the spring, as two state lawmakers asked the counsel to the General Assembly to weigh in on the legality of the new school, given the 2017 suspension ban for students in prekindergarten to second grade.

In a six-page letter on May 31, counsel Sandra Benson Brantley found the school would not comply with state law. An attorney hired by the school board responded with a June 28 opinion that took issue with some points, noted the program was changed to become voluntary and concluded it did not violate the law.

The legal questions have tied up county funding, but the school system says the project is legal and has moved ahead using funds from its operating budget. Children are expected to be placed at Fresh Start in November.

Opponents worry that families won’t feel they have a real choice if their child is recommended for Fresh Start and that children with disabilities may be wrongly placed there. It is located at the Robert D. Stethem Educational Center, a campus that includes an alternative school for older students and career programs. Fresh Start is part of a building that houses a virtual learning program.

Derek W. Black, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and author of a book on school discipline, said he was skeptical there are enough students in kindergarten to second grade “engaging in behaviors serious enough to fill up an alternative school.”

If behavior is exceptionally severe, he added, students may have an undiagnosed disability — which federal law would generally require schools to address with services in a regular school setting.

“To me, it seems highly unlikely that this is an appropriate response,” Black said. “It’s not like you have kids at that age bringing knives to school and starting fires.”

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

The money was fake. The police were real. It happened in an elementary school.

Judge Steve Teske seeks to keep kids with minor problems out of court

Resolution, years later, in boy’s suspension over ‘pastry gun’

Local newsletters: Local headlines (8 a.m.) | Afternoon Buzz (4 p.m.)

Like PostLocal on Facebook | Follow @postlocal on Twitter | Latest local news