NEW PORT RICHEY — In addition to lessons in English, math and science, the AMIkids alternative school in New Port Richey offers counseling for behavioral problems and mental health. It rewards students with scuba diving and other trips if they show good behavior. Students earn higher military-style ranks for doing well in school and showing respect to teachers.
But that model of combining education with counseling for at-risk youth is no longer supported by state juvenile justice officials. Instead, they want to leave teaching to the school system and focus counseling services during after-school hours.
Some AMI supporters question the new focus, arguing some students could miss critical services if they attend a traditional school.
"It just is not a model that is designed to succeed, in my opinion," said Joe Donahey, a retired Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge who has been an AMI Pasco board member for 10 years. "If that part of the day (school hours) was going to work itself out, they wouldn't be in the predicament they're in to begin with."
The state's policy shift surfaced after Pasco's AMI program, along with several other Central Florida affiliates, recently lost a key Department of Juvenile Justice grant to provide services to minimum-risk kids. The decision wasn't based on cost. AMI asked for $2.9 million to provide those programs, while Paxen Learning Corp. of Melbourne won a $2.8 million contract.
Currently AMI in Pasco serves about 50 children. Paxen would serve 20 students at a time. AMI had the option of serving another 20 Pasco children who have been released from juvenile detention, but the group said it wasn't economically feasible to do so.
Paxen scored higher on a panel that reviewed the two bids. Also, the company promises to offer more types of counseling programs that have a high success rate.
"This is a new paradigm," said Michael McCaffrey, DJJ's assistant secretary for probation services. "And Paxen does a better job of meeting that paradigm."
Department Secretary Wansley Walters said the old day-treatment model — a contract long held by the nonprofit AMIkids, which is working with Pasco and other school districts to keep Central Florida schools open — combined kids recently released from a juvenile detention center with lower-risk children merely on probation. The new focus on afternoon services would reach youth during a time when most crime occurs.
"All of our money will now be spent during those hours when kids are most at risk of offending," she said.
Paxen will serve children who are on probation, though only in Central Florida. AMIkids won $8.6 million in contracts to treat the lower-risk children, as well as children released from detention centers across Florida.
Eric Hall, the education director at AMI's Tampa headquarters, applauded the department's intent to provide services during high-crime hours after school. He said that system could help some kids, especially those whose problems aren't tied to school.
But, he said, "there has definitely been cases where students struggled in the school system. They may be entering the juvenile justice system because of school-based challenges."
Hall had another concern: Under the new model, a student suspended or expelled from school might have "limited or perhaps no options for educational services during that time period."
AMI officials point out their model has been recognized by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention as a "promising model," meaning it is included among the agency's recommended programs. AMI says it's the only day treatment model in the nation to meet that criteria.
Many AMI supporters in Pasco were puzzled when they heard the program would lose state funding. The program is credited with scores of stories where kids turned their lives around.
"Why mess with a good thing?" said County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand. "It's not like there's something questionable, there's something that needs to be investigated. You've never heard a whisper of any problems there."
But McCaffrey said AMI's method of combining counseling with hands-on or "experiential" education is "spotty at best."
"We don't know whether that experiential counseling and education had any effect on recidivism," he said.
The department released a 2010 report that includes statistics about day treatment programs for minimum-risk youth. The statistics cover programs from across the state, 90 percent of which are run by AMIkids.
The figures show that 38 percent of students did not complete their program, and 43 percent committed a new crime while under supervision. Pasco's program fared better than the statewide average, with 30 percent of kids not finishing the program and 38 percent arrested while under supervision. AMI branches in Pinellas and Hillsborough had below-average figures.
"Why should we spend over $11 million for one hour of service when the kids are getting arrested when they leave?" Walters said. "Clearly a different approach was necessary if we were going to start getting the outcomes we wanted."
Try telling those concerns to Michelle Montgomery of New Port Richey. Her 16-year-old son, Corey, went into AMIkids with an anger problem; he had also been using synthetic marijuana and prescription pills. He was hanging out with "negative people that never finished school, mooch off other people."
Corey is now a lieutenant in the program and Montgomery said he is nearly ready to go back to a traditional school, hopefully Mitchell High. She likes how the school provides structure for students, and includes life skills training in addition to education. She also likes that students are rewarded for good behavior.
"Without this school, I don't think I'd ever have my son back," she said. "I think he'd be in prison."
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.