Changes are coming to the Warren County School District's alternative education program.
Why? To be compliant with state law.
"Alternative education is for (the) at-risk student population," Interim Director Patricia Hawley-Horner said. "(It) is not allowed by the state to serve expelled students."
Indicating that the program currently does serve expelled students, "the recommendation would be to review the state changes and make changes as soon as possible for compliance," she said.
Superintendent Brandon Hufnagel said that while no funding comes from the state for the program, the district still is required to seek program approval from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. He explained that the "issue (is) with how the board was expelling students and placing them in the AEDY (Alternative Education for Disruptive Youth) program."
There are "certain things students have to go through" before placement in the program for "students that are chronic problems," he said. Instead of placement in alternative education as part of expulsion, Hufnagel explained that "if the board chooses to expel them, alternative education must be the condition of return" and not part of the punishment.
"When a student returns to a school district from a delinquency placement, the school district cannot automatically place a child in an alternative education program for disruptive youth merely because the child had been adjudicated delinquent," according to a note attached to the proposed policy. "Like any other student being transferred to an alternative school, students returning from delinquency placement are entitled to an informal hearing prior to being placed in an alternative education program. The purpose of the hearing is to determine whether the student is currently fit to return to the regular classroom or meets the definition of a disruptive student."
"We're making this process change," Hufnagel said. "Those students are actually going through a behavior plan" to "show evidence that this child needs to be in alternative education. (We) can't just say 'this is a problem child. They're going to alternative education without evidence.'"
According to the proposed policy, alternative education placements are contingent on 45 day reviews, limiting the district's ability to place a student there longer if goals have been met.
Hufnagel also outlined an additional issue. "When we were expelling children and placing them directly into alternative education, we were placing them without documentation to show they needed it," he said.
Two potential avenues were outlined for how administrators can show proof. Hufnagel explained that one would be to evidence that alternative education is best for a student and that all possible steps have been taken to keep a student in the regular education classroom.
The other option is to "allow them to come back to the Warren County School District after expulsion (making it a) condition of return to complete the alternative education program," he said. That option "can bring student back into the educational environment a little bit quicker."
"Most of my recommendations will be an expulsion period with a return to alternative education," said Hufnagel. "(The) other problem we're seeing now, we have kids we are sending to alternative education for a year. (The) kids say 'it doesn't make a difference what I do because I'm in it for a year.' If we do it the other way, they can get out."
"The big key is that we have to be able to offer those kids the 45 days transition if they met their goals," Misty Weber, principal of the alternative education program, said. "If they haven't met their goals, another 45 days in the program (would be the result.) If they have met them, we have to transition them back."
Part of the reason the district is willing to re-accept expelled students is that if a parent is unable to find an alternate educational placement for a student within 30 days of expulsion, the student's education once again becomes the responsibility of the district.
It was acknowledged that this process won't work for severe offenses, such as weapons in school.
"One of the big concerns was that we currently use the Warren County Career Center for some of our alternative education students," Hufnagel said. "Technically, we've expelled that student (and they) can't be with regular education students. That was one of the reasons they (the state) chose not to approve our initial application."
Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment Gary Weber said that "in the last five years, (the state) tried to re-vamp the (alternative education) process," including detailed needs as well as behavioral plans. He said that the state has developed some "nice forms to go through those with students" to help them be successful in the program.