ST. PETERSBURG — It was a one-time thing. Kola Daodu Jr. and Adrian Floyd prefer not to talk about it.
A behavior-related incident in February at Gibbs High School ended with an out-of-school suspension for Daodu, a junior, and Floyd, a sophomore — their first ever. An assistant principal gave them a choice: They could spend those three days off campus and risk falling behind on schoolwork, or they could participate in a new Pinellas County School District initiative called the Alternative Placement Program, or APP, and spend that time completing assignments under a teacher's watch.
Daodu had heard about the program from friends.
"They didn't come here for the same reason I almost didn't," the 17-year-old said. "It's a strict mentality (here)."
Suspended students this year had the option to spend every day of their suspension at one of three sites in the county, each one staffed with a certified teacher and a paraprofessional, and complete schoolwork in a block schedule. The program is voluntary and available for the thousands of middle and high school students who are suspended each year.
Last year in Pinellas, nearly 5,900 students were issued 10,598 suspensions.
The district is the latest school system to offer alternatives to keep suspended students in school, a strategy that aims to prevent a downward spiral that can throw them off track. Hillsborough County launched ATOSS, or Alternative to Out of School Suspensions, about a decade ago and has seen more students participate even as the number of suspended students drops. The program underwent tweaks and was renamed EPIC — Education, Prevention and Intervention Centers — this year.
Pinellas' program is off to a slow start. Of the 3,916 students who were given out-of-school suspensions as of April 28, just 135 participated in APP.
Michelle Topping, the district's director of educational alternative services, acknowledged the low turnout and said her department will work over the summer to educate school administrators on letting parents know about the program.
"Parents have to make the choice," she said. "As we continue to show success in the program, we hope that others will want to participate."
But the larger issue, some say, is the lack of transportation. Pinellas does not provide bus service for suspended students, so it's up to parents to get them to one of three APP sites: Pinellas Technical College in St. Petersburg, Bayside High School near St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport and Clearwater Intermediate.
Ste'Phan Lane, an assistant principal over freshmen at Lakewood High School, said only five or six students of the 30 freshmen he suspended this year participated in APP.
"In most cases, it's transportation" that holds families back, Lane said. "Parents work before 7:30 a.m. They don't trust (their children) to come on their own."
The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority offers free bus rides to those sites for any student with a school ID. PSTA spokeswoman Ashlie Handy said the number of students taking advantage of the promotion specifically for APP is not tracked.
Angyla Bell, the teacher at the Pinellas Technical College site, said she has seen two students use bus passes. The rest — a total of 59 students — were dropped off by a parent or came on their own.
Hillsborough does not offer transportation to its suspended students, either. To be more accommodating, the district this year transferred all 12 of its out-of-school suspension centers from Boys and Girls Club locations to sites at eight middle schools strategically picked throughout the county. A ninth location will be added in the fall.
The district took parents' comfort level into consideration, said Jenny Hunkins, assistant director of the division of educational access, opportunity and alternatives. Since most of Hillsborough's out-of-school suspensions are given to middle school students, a parent may be more comfortable with having them spend the day at a middle school rather than a high school or a technical college, she said.
"What we're really trying to do is curb some of that," Hunkins said, "so our kids are ready for high school."
In Hillsborough, 9,375 students have been suspended since the first day of the 2016-17 school year. Of those, 2,253 participated in EPIC and 85 percent of those participants were first-time offenders. Almost half of them never reoffended.
At Pinellas Technical College in St. Petersburg, students file into a portable classroom that's tucked away in the back of the campus. They begin their day by completing a worksheet that asks them to reflect on what landed them with an out-of-school suspension. The students also work on a current events assignment.
The rest of the day is divvied up by subject area. Students can either bring work with them or log into their school district accounts to work on assignments from their teachers. They also can follow a generic pacing guide.
"It keeps kids off the street," said Bell, the teacher.
She said she has seen three students repeat the program, but come back with different attitudes.
David White, the classroom paraprofessional, said that he has seen the same thing.
"Hopefully," he said, "this program can serve as a life preserver."
Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.