Franklin County Public Schools, in an effort to reduce chronic absenteeism, will create an alternative to out-of-school suspension for students at the middle and high school levels.
Rather than miss school, students can instead serve their suspensions at the Secondary Learning Center. The program will be housed in a building on the Benjamin Franklin Middle School campus that is currently used for storage.
“Our goal is really to keep these kids in school and be able to accommodate their learning,” said Assistant Superintendent Sue Rogers.
Students who are suspended for a period of three to 45 days will be eligible for the program, although Rogers said she expects it to primarily serve students with suspensions of 10 or more days.
Reducing the number of students who are chronically absent, typically defined as missing more than 10 percent of the school year, has grown increasingly important to school districts given the attention the statistic now receives at the federal and state levels. In Virginia’s new standards of accreditation, it is among the school quality indicators taken into consideration when determining a school’s accreditation rating.
“You can’t do well if you’re not in school. And we are held accountable for our absentee rate,” Superintendent Mark Church said at a school board meeting earlier this month.
When he proposed the project to the school board, Church provided data on chronic absenteeism and out-of-school suspensions. At Franklin County High School, 12.43 percent of students missed more than 10 percent of the school year and 1,823 days of out-of-school suspension were assigned in 2017-18. There were 47 students who served out-of-school suspensions for periods of more than 10 days.
When administrators looked more closely at district data on chronic absenteeism, they found that out-of-school suspensions played a part for some students, Rogers said.
So the district decided to come up with an alternative punishment that would not require students to stay home from school, Rogers said, thus providing instruction while minimizing disruption.
“It’s better for them to be in here,” Rogers said, referring to the Secondary Learning Center. “The ones that have this chronic absenteeism, suspension just adds to it and that’s not good.”
Rogers said the district hopes to launch the Secondary Learning Center by Oct. 1. It has already put out an advertisement for a program coordinator/teacher and is seeking approval for the use of Title IV federal funds to get the center up and running.
The center will have a “blended” learning environment that is “computer-driven,” Rogers said. Regular classroom teachers will send over course work, and students can do online modules for practice. There will also be some face-to-face instruction.
The district plans to hire a program coordinator/teacher along with two paraprofessionals. A special education teacher will receive a stipend to oversee instruction at the center.
Rogers said guidance counselors and psychologists also will visit the center and provide social-emotional support to the students, working to address behavior problems and prepare for a smooth transition when the students return to school.
Starting the program is expected to cost $176,530. The district plans to use federal Title IV funds to cover $124,397 of the cost. The district’s budget can support the remaining $52,133, officials said.
Though the district will not need to ask the board of supervisors for additional funding to launch the center this year, Rogers said, it may eventually need local support as there is no guarantee the federal funds covering the bulk of the cost will be available in the future.
The idea was presented to the school board at a meeting earlier this month, and it voted 6-2 to allow administrators to move ahead with the project. Karen Hiltz and Charles Jamison, who represent the Gills Creek and Blackwater districts, respectively, voted no.
The school board still must vote on a policy change related to suspensions, which Rogers outlined.
Currently, students who are suspended for more than 10 days have the right to a hearing before the school board. Administrators are proposing that the hearings instead go before a “superintendent’s designee” — likely Rogers — who will consult with a small group of administrators from outside the child’s school. Parents can appeal that committee’s decision to the school board. Suspensions for over 45 days will go directly to the school board.
Church told school board members having a hearing before a small group of administrators would be more efficient than bringing the cases to the board, which meets once a month.
Rogers said she expects parents will support the alternative to out-of-school suspension, as it will keep students in school.
In addition to loss of instructional time, the suspensions can also create child-care problems for parents. If a student is “challenging,” Rogers said, parents may not want to leave them home alone while they are at work.