HAMMOND — There are the familiar red-brick halls lined with posters of inspiring quotes and glittering handcrafted bulletin boards reflecting the smiling faces of students. Bright yellow all-in-one picnic tables and benches are huddled under shady trees in the courtyard. High-fives and phrases like “tuck your shirt in, son” are handed out by the principal as kids shuffle between classes.

It’s a scene that could be mirrored in countless American schools across the country, but for this one, a sense of normalcy is an achievement they’ve long sought.

The Tangipahoa Alternative School used to feel like a prison, by almost all accounts, but a major overhaul in the 2018-19 school year as part of a state Department of Education pilot program has given the school a complete 180 — and perhaps provided a model for similar schools across Louisiana.

The school district is one of only two in the state — the other being East Baton Rouge Parish — that participated in the program with national consultants through the Discipline Revolution Project. What followed was a hard look at data, and some hard questions to officials about why kids are being sent to alternative schools in the first place.

At Tangipahoa Alternative School, the result has been small group meetings similar to counseling groups where kids are free to speak their mind about problems they're facing. They have one-on-one mentors to follow them through their time in alternative programs and afterward, and there's a distinctive focus on social and emotional learning to stop disruptive feelings before they become disruptive behaviors.

“We think our alternative school could be a model for the state because it’s really about rehabilitation and it’s not a prison-type atmosphere,” Tangipahoa Parish School District Superintendent Melissa Stilley said. “It’s like OK, you made a bad choice, sometimes a really bad choice, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, but you need to rethink why you’re doing these things.”

At East Baton Rouge's three discipline-based alternative schools, the same focus on social and emotional learning exists with the fundamental goal to address the underlying cause of behaviors. Both districts draft individual behavior and learning plans for their alternative students, similar to an IEP in special education, to determine goals based on a particular student's background and struggles.

The East Baton Rouge district's elementary campus, which has 21 kids attending, has what the school calls a "True Room" where every student goes for 10 to 15 minutes a day, or if they're pulled out of class for being disruptive. There are stations ranging from puzzles to old console video games to a punching bag and basketball, and the kids can choose which activity they want to do. 

The supervisor will sit quietly for those first few minutes as the child lets out their energy, but the agreement is the student has to talk about what's happened and do their work once it's over.

"One of the things we often say when parents come for intake is, at the end of the day, the punishment was that your child was expelled, but it's not our job to punish them every day," said EBR Readiness — Elementary Principal Rochelle Washington Scott. "It's our job to make sure they're academically and socially getting what they need as well."

Washington Scott said often the kids coming to elementary alternative programs mirror the older kids with issues like fighting and disrespecting authority.

Changing the focus from the cycle of kids in and out of alternative programs to addressing the root of the issue and providing a more rounded solution rather than just punishment has been refreshing for faculty, and students, both Washington Scott and Stilley say.

The kids, and a couple of staff members at Tangipahoa's program, describe a former classroom environment in which teachers would hand out packets of worksheets for kids to complete with little input from educators. The students would write and rewrite paragraphs of content, and if they misbehaved, they’d be deducted "levels" for certain infractions.

“Last year, as soon as we entered the building, it was like we had to get a shake down, it was like jail,” freshman Amber Williams said. “Now it’s more comfortable and you can relax a bit more because you feel like you’re welcome.”

In fact, Tangipahoa gained so much insight from the year-long project, which concluded at the end of the 2018-19 year, that the school is now continuing its work with Discipline Revolution by using federal money, Stilley said. East Baton Rouge plans to soon present to its board a measure to do the same.

The pilot stemmed from an October 2017 group commissioned by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to study alternative education schools. Ultimately, the group found a majority of students referred for out-of-school intervention could have had their infractions addressed within their traditional school setting without the interruption of changing schools.

BESE later approved a new accountability system for alternative schools and the state began identifying schools whose students are likely to experience an out-of-school intervention. Those schools are labeled Urgent Intervention Required, of which Tangipahoa has since been found to have 11, according to Stilley.

Terran Perry, the Tangipahoa Alternative School principal, was brought on at the start of the 2019-20 school year to continue the forward momentum. He had to essentially pitch his overhaul plan to the hiring panel and once successful was given freedom to hire his team of educators.

Perry filled his team with educators and administrators who look like the kids they’re serving. Data show that often that means black males.

The alternative school has about 40% male staff, and of that roughly 90% are a minority.

“I think seeing those male role models on campus will have an impact, and based on preliminary results and the culture we’re seeing an impact on our young men,” Perry said. “The whole objective is to reverse the school to prison pipeline.”

The kids also are required to complete community service projects before finishing the program. Recently, they’ve refurbished the school’s cafeteria, painted the courtyard picnic tables and spent time reading to the elderly at nursing homes in the area.

Lisa French, director of student engagement and success for the state Department of Education, said following the pilot the agency brought the newly developed policy to BESE defining what support and services are needed in alternative education spaces, with the expectation that over the next three years, all of Louisiana’s alternative education facilities would use that model.

That model incorporates how to provide additional resources kids aren’t getting at their traditional schools that may influence their behavior, how traditional schools can address problems at their level, cultural sensitivity and the biases that are skewing alternative populations largely black, and additional professional development for teachers.

But what the kids see on a day-to-day level are the teachers who are more involved, they say, and a stronger focus on education.

Senior Kenya Berry, who will soon return to her home site of Hammond High School, said she had always wanted to be a massage therapist but has turned her sights to social work now.

She was sent to Tangipahoa Alternative School for fighting, like most of the kids there. But she went to one of Hammond’s home football games recently and saw all her old friends in the band, or cheering on the team, and realized how much time she’d lost.

“I just thought I’m really missing this because I could be at school enjoying it, too,” she said. “If I want to be better, I have to do better, so my goal is to catch up, and if I don’t understand, I’ll ask for tutoring, which I would have never done before.”

The Tangipahoa and East Baton Rouge administrators are hoping to continue improving the outlook of the students.

“In the past, it’s almost been an out-of-sight, out-of-mind thing,” Perry said. “Let’s get the kids off our campuses and send them to an alternative school, and that’s it. But now we’re seeing we could really do something with our children and we have to really focus on reformation more than retribution, and that’s what the philosophy is.”

Email Emma Kennedy at ekennedy@theadvocate.com.