LAND O'LAKES — Pasco County needs to refocus its alternative schools as last-chance stops for the district's most disruptive students, superintendent Kurt Browning says.
"I don't think we have alternative schools — not the way I envision them," Browning said. "I think the rules have got to be different. There are kids that have acted out not once, but continually. … They need an alternative environment."
Too often, he said, teachers and administrators complain that the "naughty" students who get multiple disciplinary referrals land at the Irvin or Schwettman education centers for a month or two, then return and still act up.
"In essence, they come back in, they're still disruptive and they've lost eight weeks of instruction," Browning said. "Now it's more difficult for those students to catch up."
If the district expels them, they often don't finish their schooling.
That's why he wants to revamp Irvin and Schwettman to make sure the students get a true opportunity to turn their behavior around, get back on track and complete the education they need. They would become very different from the district's other two alternative schools: the Marchman Technical Education Center, with its focus on career skills, and the Moore-Mickens Education Center, where the future is still up in the air.
In recent years, the differences among the schools have become blurred. The past administration explored a model that centered more heavily on credit recovery and away from behavior issues.
This new incarnation would turn back the other way. Irvin and Schwettman would again deal primarily with disciplinary issues, allowing the traditional middle and high schools to handle the students who have only fallen behind academically.
Teachers should have more time to work with those students once freed from dealing with the small numbers of persistent troublemakers, Browning said.
As a first step, Browning is asking the School Board to place more behavior specialists and special education teachers at both Schwettman and Irvin, in order to centralize services for the district's most severe emotional-behavior disabled students.
"Part of the rationale for that is those schools already have full-time social workers and full-time psychologists," Browning said, explaining that the existing and added staff could best help these children, who number only about a half-dozen per school. "Part of the problem is that they are spread out."
The plan also calls for Irvin principal Nancy Guss to oversee Moore-Mickens after Buff Johnson retires at year's end. That will give the district more time to determine the fate of Moore-Mickens, which Browning recommended for relocation shortly after taking office, but backed off amid community opposition.
Browning said he remained unconvinced that the district needs a small, more personal school for students who feel lost on a bigger campus.
"I struggle with the whole idea that we as a district have got to make accommodations for kids who say, 'I don't fit in,' " he said. "That's life. I'm not saying we toss them aside and say, 'Suck it up.' "
Rather, he said, the district needs to better serve them within existing schools.
School Board chairwoman Alison Crumbley said she liked the idea of bringing together the students with emotional-behavior disabilities.
"It really sounds like it's going to serve that population of students better, as opposed to being scattered around all over the place," Crumbley said. "They can better target and do what they need to for the students."
Board member Allen Altman, a longtime critic of the district's seeming lack of alternative programs, also applauded Browning's direction.
"Teachers keep telling me they have one or two students that consume about 80 percent of their time," Altman said. "We've had multiple discussions over the past several months about how we provide services and supports to those students and thereby free up our teachers and administrators to focus on the 98 percent of students that are there to learn."
Browning said his staff continues to work on the details, and he hoped to have a plan prepared by early May, so the new alternative schools model can be implemented in the next academic year.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.