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Alternative paths to a diploma

By January 5, 2010 No Comments

Troubled East Allen students have 2 options for finishing high school Kelly Soderlund Posted: December 13, 2009 by The Journal Gazette Jacob Grogg had a problem with authority. The 18-year-old thought he was smarter than everybody, and anytime he was questioned by a teacher at Heritage Junior-Senior High School, Grogg would argue with the teacher. Before high school, Grogg said he was a straight-A student, never had to crack a book. “High school rolled around, and things changed. And I wasn’t really willing to accept that change,” Grogg said. Heritage staff eventually told Grogg he probably wouldn’t graduate from the Monroeville high school. He said his only option was to transfer to Ombudsman, an alternative program within East Allen County Schools. The program, with its three-hour-a-day, work-at-your-own pace, proved beneficial for Grogg, who said he thrived in an environment with little distractions. Grogg is one of about 25 students who attend Ombudsman, in the Park Hill Center, a building next to New Haven Middle School owned by the district. East Allen County Schools has contracted with the private company that runs Ombudsman for the past 11 years, but the district has to decide how to serve students who have a difficult time learning in a traditional classroom. A committee comprising school district administrators is determining how alternative education at the middle and high school level should look, where it should be housed and in what form students should be educated. As East Allen contemplates changes in where to educate students with behavior and other problems, it is sending more students to a less expensive church-based program and fewer to its long-standing alternative school. The elimination of one program in favor of a less expensive one could make a dent in decreasing the district’s $10 million deficit in its 2010 budget. This year, the superintendent at the time, Kay Novotny, proposed eliminating Ombudsman to save money and opt for a less expensive program that would ensure students who graduated from alternative programs would count toward the district’s graduation rate. The majority of Ombudsman students receive an Illinois diploma, thus counting against the district’s graduation rate, which counts only students who graduate from Indiana high schools and receive Indiana diplomas. As of this school year, East Allen students can also attend The Crossing, a faith-based private company headquartered in Elkhart. The company has a New Haven location that’s also contracting with the district to serve students who’ve already dropped out of high school or who aren’t succeeding in their home schools. In theory, if it were the only option, Ombudsman students could transfer to The Crossing and graduate with an Indiana diploma, thus raising the district’s current graduation rate of 81 percent. The religion portion of the program is something that doesn’t concern East Allen officials, but it’s a concept the executive director of the Indiana American Civil Liberties Union said could become a conflict if anyone were to complain. “If they’re faith-based and the school is contracting with them, it would appear that the school is contracting with and spending tax dollars on a faith-based organization,” said Gilbert Holmes, executive director of the ACLU in Indiana. “If that’s the case, it could be a problem.” Ombudsman The Ombudsman program, started by a former Chicago Public Schools superintendent, has been around since the 1970s. Ombudsman Educational Services owns more than 100 schools in 13 states. It’s considered a private school, but East Allen students don’t pay tuition, since the district picks up the cost. Students from outside the district who want to attend must pay, and some do, but EACS students are given priority. This year, East Allen will spend $107,500 on Ombudsman – $4,300 per student per year for 25 slots, said Kirby Stahly, the district’s chief financial officer. East Allen officials reduced the number of students it would pay for by 20 this year, cutting the expense, he said. Students can be referred to Ombudsman by their principals or they can choose to transfer there, said Deborah Petersen, local Ombudsman director. Some students are enrolled in Ombudsman’s homebound program because of extreme illness or they’re not allowed on East Allen property because of previous behavior problems, Petersen said. Students spend the majority of their time working on individually tailored lessons on the computer, but any instruction they receive from a teacher is one-on-one, Petersen said. Most go for only three hours each day, choosing to work the rest of the day. Some are parents who have a family to support, and others find it easier to work in an individual setting for a shorter period without the distraction of a large high school. “It helps to come in and just work alone by myself and get my work done and leave,” said Andy Cheek, 17, who left Northrop High School in Fort Wayne Community Schools to attend Ombudsman. Until recently, East Allen officials thought Ombudsman graduates could receive only an Illinois diploma because that’s where Ombudsman is headquartered. It doesn’t make a difference for students, who hold a high school diploma no matter what state it’s from, but it does count against the district’s graduation rate. After Novotny recommended cutting ties with Ombudsman, partly for that reason, officials did more research and discovered that East Allen students could get an Indiana diploma from Ombudsman, if they passed ISTEP+. East Allen students who graduate from Ombudsman “almost exclusively” receive an Illinois diploma, said Jeff Studebaker, the district’s school safety manager. The Crossing About a year ago, Maranda Smith, 19, was living with her boyfriend, who she said was selling “illegal stuff.” It was a bad situation she wanted out of, so she dropped out of New Haven High School and moved with her mom to North Carolina. Smith wanted to get back to Indiana and heard about The Crossing, where she could pick up where she left off and get a high school diploma. She enrolled and is on track to graduate this year, with hopes of attending Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne or Brown Mackie College. “I like that it’s a work-at-your-own pace (program), and I like that everybody’s honest with each other; nobody holds back anything,” Smith said. The Crossing is owned by the Crossing Educational Center, a non-profit organization that owns seven schools in Indiana. “For the most part, our focus is to give students who have dropped out a second chance … to graduate with a high school diploma,” said Luke Caldwell, campus coordinator for The Crossing in East Allen County Schools. Students at The Crossing receive a high school diploma that coincides with their home public school, Caldwell said. There are currently 26 students enrolled, the majority hailing from East Allen high schools, but the district will pay for up to 35 students, said Studebaker, who sits on The Crossing’s local board. Most of the students are 18 to 20 years old, have jobs and feel awkward re-enrolling in their former high school because they’re older and already dropped out, Studebaker said. They attend The Crossing for three hours in the morning or afternoon, he said. East Allen County Schools will spend $150,000 on The Crossing this year, and the program is about $1,700 less per year than Ombudsman, Stahly said. The Crossing church, 909 Main St., New Haven, allows the company to use space in its building for free, said Rob Staley, executive director of the Crossing Educational Center. The Crossing is unique because students have “family time” every day, where they talk with each other and their instructors about their day and their lives, with a religious component, Caldwell said. “We like to deal with life first and then academics second,” Caldwell said. “We know that the students that come here … have had some tough issues and have been going through some difficult experiences, and we don’t want to just disregard or ignore those situations.” ksoderlund@jg.net]]>

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