school bus

Advocate file photo by LESLIE WESTBROOK

Public schools are too quick to toss students with behavior problems, and most students fail to get the help they need when they are assigned to alternative schools, according to a report prepared for state education officials.

In addition, black students make up 44 percent of the public school population but 85 percent of those sent to alternative programs, according to the study.

"Too many young people in serious need of help are not receiving the services they need in Louisiana's alternative schools," it says.

The report was compiled by a 38-member study group of school superintendents, counselors, principals and others.

The panel was formed by the state Department of Education earlier this year in a bid to improve services for students five times more likely to quit school than their peers in traditional settings.

The review was presented to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education last week.

A new model is needed for the state on how to handle alternative education, panelists said.

"The time to act is now," state Superintendent of Education John White said in a statement.

Copies of the review are being sent to Gov. John Bel Edwards and the state House and Senate education committees, and BESE directed department officials to recommend policy changes.

About 18,000 students are enrolled in one of the 139 alternative programs or attend one of the state's 35 alternative education schools.

The schools and programs are designed to help students improve their behavior and/or improve their academic achievement.

But the report says that usually does not happen.

"Students in Louisiana alternative education settings rarely receive academic, behavioral, social and emotional services needed to address the root cause of their exit from the home school," according to the report.

They face limited face-to-face time with teachers and a lack of needed technology, career and technical options, academic counseling and clarity for students and parents on what they can expect at an alternative school.

"Given these striking gaps in service, it should come as no surprise that students referred to an alternative school in Louisiana are five times more likely than their peers to drop out of school," it says.

The average statewide dropout rate in grades 7-12 for students in alternative schools is 19 percent.

The rate for students statewide is 4 percent for those grades.

"There really has to be a shift to provide the academic and social and emotional support that these students need," said Katie Barras, an education program consultant with the state Office of Student Opportunities.

Most students tossed out of traditional schools were guilty of "minor to moderate infractions," usually for the ill-defined "willful disobedience," the panel concluded.

"Site visits revealed students suspended for improper dress, cell phone usage and excessive tardiness," according to the report.

Many of those cases should be addressed by home schools, it says.

BESE member Kathy Edmonston, who lives in Gonzales, said Monday the vagueness of the term "willful disobedience" has caused problems for years.

"We need to look at that for sure," Edmonston said.

Other infractions include fighting, violating school rules and using profane language.

Nearly nine out of 10 students are sent to alternative schools for non-violent offenses.

As part of the study, state education officials visited alternative schools and programs at 47 sites in 21 school systems as well alternative schools in Colorado and Texas.

Barras said she was especially struck by the Colorado system, which she called "very student centered."

State officials also surveyed 231 alternative education principals and school counselors.

The report said students with disabilities make up 26 percent of those getting alternative services while they comprise 11 percent of the public school population.

Students are typically enrolled in alternative education programs, sometimes in their home schools, if they need help for less than 45 days.

Those needing more assistance are sent to alternative schools.

The report said state and local education officials need to devise a plan for short and long-term treatment.

The short-term plan should include academic and behavioral remediation for students in danger of being expelled for behavior problems or missing school.

The long-term services would be for students who need extensive and intensive resources to succeed, according to the study.

Edmonston said the high dropout rate for students in alternative schools often leads to trouble and jail time.

"It is the schools to prison pipeline," she said.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.