school bus

Advocate file photo by LESLIE WESTBROOK

After a scathing report, Louisiana's alternative education schools and programs need attention, resources and changes in how the state measures progress, education officials said.

The report, which was released on Oct. 17, said the system is riddled with problems, and that students rarely get the academic, behavior and social help they need.

The lack of help means it is not surprising that alternative education students are five times more likely than others to quit school, according to the study.

"That report was bleak," said Larry Carter, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers.

What it can do, officials said, is shine a light on an issue that rarely gets much public attention.

The topic has rarely surfaced at meetings of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education for nearly two decades.

Carter remembers a push 15-20 years ago by Texas vendors to reshape the system to mirror changes in Houston and Dallas.

It went nowhere.

"We need to bring a spotlight on it," said Doris Voitier, superintendent of the St. Bernard Parish School District and a member of BESE.

"We need to make sure the services needed for the kids to do well are provided," Voitier said.

That requires more services for students when they enter the state's 35 alternative schools or 139 alternative education programs, she and others said.

"I think we have ignored the evaluation of the programs too long and ignored what  the program should consist of in addition to academics," Voitier said.

The state has about 18,000 alternative education students.

Students are typically assigned to the schools because of behavior problems or because they are well behind in their school work.

"They are not your typical learners," said Mike Faulk, superintendent of the Central school system.

"They have situations, home life and all of that," Faulk said.

"So they need a different menu than the regular menu, and right now these schools are being lumped in to the regular menu," he added.

The report, which was done by a 38-member task force, made the same point.

The study said school systems or third party providers should craft individualized plans for students, decide whether it is short or long term and focus on the student's academic, social, emotional and behavioral success.

Even top-rated districts struggle with the issue.

Faulk, whose district is ranked No. 2 in the state, said counseling is provided in his school system and local officials meet with the parents to monitor progress.

"But you are really going to have to provide more in depth, talking with school psychologists, social workers and stuff like that to really help not only the student but the parents," he said.

Getting parents involved is one of the challenges, said Tamara Johnson, executive director for school leadership in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

Johnson said the district plans to open an office to introduce parents to alternative education options.

Her district has six alternative schools used by 550 students and four discipline centers for short term placements.

Debra Schum, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Principals, said the state has to ensure that alternative settings are not akin to holding cells.

"I think it is going to take a concentration of providing services for students who have a varying range of issues," Schum said.

"Because it could be a social issue, it could be an academic issue, it could be a behavior issue," she said. "And a lot of times they aren't getting the services they need."

Johnson echoed that.

"Educators could benefit from more training to support understanding and identifying underlying issues of the non traditional student," she said in an email response to questions.

Carter said students sometimes have psychological or other issues that tax the resources of school systems.

"Most schools still struggle with that piece, and I think the alternate schools have been overused to be honest," he said.

The report said school districts are too quick to toss students for issues like cell phone usage and tardiness, and that 88 percent of students using alternative services are there for non-violent reasons.

Black students, who make up 44 percent of the state's public school population, account for 85 percent of alternative education enrollees, according to the report.

Under current rules, alternative schools get their own grades.

Scores for students enrolled in alternative programs are returned to the home school.

Voitier said the state needs a new way to measure the schools and programs.

"What we need to identify are what are the facets that make for an excellent alternative education program or school," she said.

"We have to bring in mental health services, conflict resolution services," Voitier said. "Things that are going to help that student be receptive to more of an academic program."

The task force said the state needs a revamped accountability system unique to those students, and whether they meet clearly defined performance measures.

Wesley Watts, superintendent of the West Baton Rouge Parish School District, questioned whether the report reflects how alternative education is faring in his 4,000-students system.

Watts said district officials have had "some pretty good success" helping troubled students.

Others noted that alternative schools sometimes provide a vital outlet for teachers who feel threatened in the classroom.

"Teachers have to have an avenue to make sure they are protecting their students and protecting the learning environment," said Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators.

Meaux said the students deserve more assistance but it should not be financed with an unfunded mandate for schools and districts.

"All of this is going to cost money so the Legislature is going to have to address it," she said.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.