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Is revolution on way for alternative schools?

By ANDREW SKERRITT
Published January 29, 2006


Each day, the buses pull up to the Schwettman Education Center in downtown New Port Richey, and dozens of students climb out. These are what some folks consider problem kids.

They're at the alternative school voluntarily, though. Parents and students agree the smaller classes are better for them. They stay a semester or maybe the whole year, however long it takes to bring their anger under control or to learn what it means to be respectful.

Over on the east side of Pasco County, similar scenes unfold at the Irvin Education Center in Dade City.

At each location, the Pasco County School District provides a team - a psychologist, social worker, nurse - to get these students ready to return to the regular school and hopefully a high school diploma.

In Hernando County, students who can't control their anger and get in trouble usually end up at the STAR Center. Similar students in Citrus County usually end up at the Renaissance Center. All these facilities are run by the school districts.

Now the Pasco County School District is considering something new, something different, perhaps revolutionary.

Some would call it privatizing the supervision of problem students. Others would call it another option to save students so prone to going astray.

Pasco school officials have been talking with a Nashville company, Community Education Partners, about opening a new alternative school. CEP operates schools in Pinellas and Orange counties as well as in Texas, Virginia and Georgia.

Where the Pasco school will be situated, how much it will cost and who will attend are details still being worked out. If it's going to happen, the deal must be signed by the end of February.

The idea sort of originated with superintendent Heather Fiorentino. She heard about CEP when she was in the Legislature. After she took over as the boss in Pasco, the company figured it would be a great time to talk. She was interested.

In a typical alternative school like Schwettman, teacher, social worker and psychologist work as a team. They try to build students' self esteem. It sounds corny, but they try to turn frowns into smiles. Alternative education is usually about anger management and behavior modification.

But still, the campuses feel like school, only much smaller. Boys and girls share classes. Students tackle the same subjects as in regular school.

CEP promises to do things differently, according to Bob Dorn, the retired Pasco school administrator who was the company's first hire locally.

The company promises structure. When students get off the bus in the morning, they are greeted by staff and go through security checks. When they walk through the hall at the start of the day, they are greeted by three different staff members, who try to find out if the student is doing all right.

In a typical high school with more than 3,000 students, a kid can go through a whole week without a meaningful exchange with an adult.

The CEP staff say they try to remove distractions. Teen boys get distracted by girls. So they're in separate classes.

CEP is strictly academic. No vocational courses, no art, no music, no gym. Skipping school isn't an option.

In a typical school, after each period the entire student population is let loose walking the hallways. Like meteors in their pubescent orbits, they often collide.

Not so in a CEP school. The firm uses the elementary school style. A teacher takes the class and stands in the hallway; they move together.

The biggest difference between what the district offers and CEP promises, however, is results.

The company guarantees results.

"If they don't show the growth, you don't have to pay them," Fiorentino said. "I like that somebody stands behind their guarantee."

That's a novel educational concept.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at 813 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is askerritt@sptimes.com

[Last modified January 29, 2006, 01:27:17]


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