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Schreiber's Alternative High School program must be evaluated by an outside consultant and thoroughly revamped to serve students who are currently bused out of the district for their schooling, high school principal Jay Lewis told the school board Dec. 14.

The alternative-school program, which accommodates up to 30 students annually, has not been reviewed in many years, is perceived poorly by parents and needs to be overhauled, Lewis said. It serves sophomores,juniors and seniors who have a history of failure in Schreiber's regular program and is housed in a trailer adjacent to the main building. Most participants graduate with a Regents diploma and the majority go to college, Lewis said.

Among Lewis' chief goals are reducing the number of students sent outside the district, increasing the program's mental-health services and bringing children into the program earlier, perhaps as early as seventh grade.

"It is the unanimous feeling of the people involved in this program and of the secondary administrators that we have to address these students' needs at an earlier age," Lewis said. Students who repeatedly fail at Schreiber "do not become at-risk overnight ... Something needs to be done." Services for younger students might not involve being segregated physically, as the older students are, but could involve other approaches, such as "helping parents approach parenting in different ways," he said.

Many students in the alternative school come from troubled family situations or have other special needs, explained Caryl Oris, a consulting psychiatrist who has worked with the program for nine years. For example, she said, eight of the 22 students currently in the program, or 36 percent, are from intact families, compared with 62 percent district wide. Nine, or 42 percent, have had psychiatric treatment, compared with 20 percent of U.S. teenagers. And nearly half of the sophomores have witnessed domestic abuse.

Kathy Mooney, director of pupil personnel services, said several students who might have attended the alternative school instead go to the Alternative Learning Program at BOCES: 13 last year and nine this year. Of those nine, six are graduating or will soon be too old for the program.

Costs of out-of-district programs are far higher than the $20,000 per-pupil cost of an education within the district. Tuitions start at $35,000 and go up from there.

Improvements to the alternative school would be aimed at reducing future referrals to BOCES and other programs, rather than bringing back students who are currently placed elsewhere, Mooney said.

No costs were given for the current program, and Superintendent Geoffrey Gordon's office was not immediately able to supply figures. But Lewis and Mooney said that improvements to the alternative high school would not raise, and could lower, the district's costs of educating these struggling students. The five current teachers could serve up to 50 students, they said

The Dec. 14 session was a work session, so the board took no votes. No cost was given for the consultant, who was not identified. Oris described him as having credentials in both psychology and education and as having evaluated similar programs. He would develop questionnaires for students in the program, their parents, parents of past students, teachers in the alternative school, Schreiber teachers and Weber administrators and teachers. He would conduct focus-group interviews with each group and research appropriate academic programs, mental-health services and what Lewis called "affective programs."

Weber Principal Marilyn Rodahan explained in an interview that effective programs address children's emotional and social needs through group therapy, parental involvement and other activities outside the traditional classroom.

At present, the mental-health needs of students in the alternative school are served by a half-time guidance counselor and visits from Schreiber's psychologist and social worker. Mooney said that ALP, which serves similar students, has a much stronger mental-health component.

"Parents say this has made the critical difference," Mooney said. "We could do it in-house at a lower cost."

Mooney, Lewis, Oris and several board members agreed that a past $250,000 contract with New York University to provide outside mental-health services to the alternative school was a failure. Lewis said he expected the consultant's report by mid-spring and that changes would be made over the next two years.

In other business, the board heard a report from Joseph Manzella of H2M Group, on the costs of installing methane-detection and ventilation systems in the crawl spaces at Salem Elementary School. He described a $15,000 detection system and a ventilation system that would cost an additional $132,000.

No methane from the closed landfill adjacent to Salem has been detected at the school in recent years, Manzella said, so he recommended that the district first install the detection system and then, if methane is found, consider the full ventilation system.

Board member Roy Nelson asked Manzella to work with district officials on lowering the cost of the detection system. The board is to consider the matter again at its Dec. 21 meeting.


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