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MASD shutting down alternative education program for 2020-21

By Laura Hayes

laurahayes@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 7/1/20

Middletown Area School District is closing its alternative education program,  the Middletown Academy, next school year.

The academy opened in the 2017-2018 school year for students in grades …

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MASD shutting down alternative education program for 2020-21

Posted

Middletown Area School District is closing its alternative education program,  the Middletown Academy, next school year.

The academy opened in the 2017-2018 school year for students in grades 6 through 12. Most of the students had behavioral issues, which MASD Superintendent Lori Suski said resulted in them being excluded from school to some degree. Disciplinary measures such as in-school suspension or out-of-school suspension weren’t successful, she said.

The closure stems from a settlement agreement between the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the Department of Justice, according to Suski. Districts such as MASD are not allowed to house their own alternative education program not approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

“To have a PDE-approved program, there are several hoops that we would have to jump through that are not the same as the program that we currently have in place for the last three years,” Suski said during a May 5 school board meeting.

The academy is in a classroom in the rear of MAHS, and there can be up to 14 kids in the program, Suski said in an email.

The district started the Middletown Academy to try to decrease the number of students who were being placed in out-of-district alternative education programs. Suski said placing students in those settings can be expensive.

Some are in the academy because classrooms with 20 to 25 students overwhelmed them or caused anxiety and stress for mental health, learning or behavioral reasons, Suski said.

Suski said students in the program who had been expelled weren’t expelled for being considered a risk to the safety of students, such as possessing a weapon or making threats.

MASD was successful in reducing the number of students going into out-of-district programs, although some students were still being placed elsewhere depending on their violation.

In its first year, there were 11 to 14 kids in the program for most of the year, but Suski said that number has decreased.

“Those students who have been in the program have benefitted from the strong relationships built with the staff who run the program,” Suski said.

Many of the students did better in a smaller setting, Suski said.

She credited the work of Principal Earl Bright IV, the school psychologist and social worker, and paraprofessionals.

“Sometimes one caring adult is all it takes to make a significant change in a kid’s attitude about school and self-efficacy. For that reason alone, I am sad to see the program dissolve. Watching some of those kids walk across the stage and graduate last year was edifying for Mr. Bright and me. Without the program, some of them would have struggled to finish high school.”

The smaller setting with more support is often what these students needed in order to be more successful, Suski said.

“Parents welcomed this approach in lieu of their child being placed in programs outside the district as most of those involved a bus ride to and from Shiremanstown or as far as Carlisle daily,” she said.

Bright, previously the principal of Reid Elementary School, will take on other administrative duties for the district, she said.

“Mr. Bright has always been willing to take on any new challenge presented to him, which is why he was tapped to start our alternative program a few years ago,” Suski said. “He did a great job with it, and many kids flourished in the program due to his belief in them.”

How does it work?

Students arrived at the Middletown Academy using separate transportation and through a separate entrance.

According to Suski, the students’ instruction is delivered online through the cyber platform Edison Learning that MASD purchases through the Capital Area Online Learning Association.

In addition to an online teacher, core subject teachers rotate to help the students for one period a day in person. Lunch is eaten in classrooms. Students are supervised when they use the restrooms.

Court case 

According to the settlement agreement, the Department of Justice was investigating complaints into the state Department of Education’s policies and practices related to oversight and approval of Alternative Education for Disruptive Youth Programs.

The agreement said there were allegations that students were referred to these programs “on the basis of disability and denying equal opportunities to access and participate in equal educational experiences,” and local educational agencies were also failing to give language services to English learners in the programs.

Suski said the district learned about the decision in a letter from Pennsylvania Department of Education in December that stated that all programs that weren’t approved by the department had to conclude at the end of the year as part of the agreement.

Krystal Palmer, the MASD director of special education, and Bright told parents about the decision during IEP (short for individualized education program) meetings or in other programming talks starting in January, Suski said.

“With the pandemic, some of that notification had not even occurred yet as most of those meetings were scheduled to be held in the late spring,” Suski said.

According to Suski, to be a PDE-approved program, a number of regulations have to be followed, such as providing two hours a week of counseling to each student by a school counselor or other mental health professional. PDE also requires that a student couldn’t spend more than 45 days in an alternative setting, and if they met their goal when they were placed, they were expected to return to general education.

Also, the district wouldn’t be allowed to use online courses.

“With the sheer number of certifications required at the secondary level for science alone (i.e. biology, chemistry, physics, general, etc.), we could not afford to program for direct instruction of such a small number of students using existing staff other than in a supportive capacity,” Suski said.

A non-PDE program gives the district more flexibility on how it is operated, although the district still had to report how the program was structured, how students were educated, and enrollment, Suski said.

What happens next?

Some, but not all, of the Middletown Academy students will return to MAMS or MAHS, depending on the length of expulsion or circumstances that got them into the program, Suski said.

Some might go to River Rock Academy, which offers alternative education services, or Yellow Breeches Educational Center, a private academic school. Both have several locations.

The students also could opt for the Raider Academy Cyber Program, Middletown’s full-time online program. However, Suski said many parents don’t prefer to go that route unless they can supervise the student at home.

Suski said about 90 students take courses online through the Raider Academy. 

The school board and administrators have been talking about bringing a program to the district through Effective Schools Solutions, which would work with the type of students who attend the Middletown Academy, Suski said during the May 5 board meeting. 

The school board approved June 1 an agreement with Effective School Solutions to provide its services at MAMS for a cohort of up to 10 students. The $170,000 agreement will cover the cost of a full-time mental health clinician, administrative support, a professional development day and eight days of coaching.