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Academy chief says original mission being fulfilled

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Students at risk of expulsion turning lives around

By Kevin Koelling, Managing Editor

TELL CITY - The executive director of the Perry County Learning Academy is finding "we're dealing more and more with students who are struggling to fit in to the traditional school model."

Mike Bishop was providing a report to the board members who oversee the alternative school, Ron Etienne and Mary Roberson, superintendents for Tell City-Troy Township and Perry Central Community schools, respectively.

"We're serving as an alternative to expulsion," Bishop continued. "From the beginning, that's what we set out to do, because no one wants to kick a student out of school."

While some courses are offered via computer, most of the students attending the academy "are doing pencil-and-paper courses", he added.

Twenty-five students who the academy has served since 2005 were past their graduation dates, Bishop reported. Many who attend do so in order to earn "recovery credits" to catch up in areas where they've fallen behind in order to graduate on time.

Bishop said he looked into summertime offerings, and asked students what schedule they'd prefer.

"What we found out was pretty shocking," he said. "The students honed in on two particular days of the week, which were Tuesday and Wednesday, and specifically the morning hours."

He had offered two week-long summer sessions, "but rather than two weeks, day in and day out, why not adjust our schedule so we serve our students during a time which is best for them?"

Offering classes from 8 a.m. until noon Tuesdays and Wednesdays, including the present two days before and three days after each school year, would serve that purpose at no additional cost, he said. Talking to guidance counselors as the current school year comes to an end could identify students who'd benefit from summer classes.

Roberson said the alternative school has been fortunate in securing grants and state funding tied to student counts to the point that it remains self-sustaining despite cuts in other education areas.

"The word is, summer-school funding is not going to be affected," she said.

"Well, that's the word," Etienne replied, "but it's just like textbook reimbursement ... the word is that it's not affected, but if they don't increase the appropriation and the need goes up ... it's a struggle to keep that fund in the black."

Both superintendents said only 86 percent of the costs for textbooks were funded this year. The other 14 percent is significant, Etienne said, and the figure can fluctuate according to how many students move into or out of a school district after the official count day each year, on which state funding is based. Schools have to provide free books to students who qualify or free or reduced-price meals, he explained, and those who tend to be transient are more likely to qualify.

Current enrollment at the academy is 65, Bishop reported, with 59 from the Tell City-Troy Township school district and six from Perry Central's working toward recovery credits. Eleven and three from each school corporation, respectively, are classified as adult students.

He declined to provide names, but a student from each system "came to us not highly recommended, to be politically correct, and ... have really stepped up to the plate. We've noticed a change in behavior, they're making progress toward completing credits and they're just success stories. There are others like those, but when you find someone who comes to us under the circumstances that they did, it stands out."

Headed toward expulsion, the students were success stories he wanted to share with the board members, Bishop said, "and I hope we continue to have more."

Students had earned 28 credits since the start of this semester, he said, "and we're on track to hit our average of 50 to 60 credits per semester, and that's a compliment to the students and the work that they're doing."

With funding from a Safe Schools-Healthy Students Grant, he continued, students are benefiting from school-based mental-health services.

"Without question, we've had a definite need here for some time," he said. In their traditional roles, high-school counselors "get spread pretty thin, so our students may not see many services there."

Three counselors have been visiting students in the Schergens Center, where the academy's classes are conducted, and "it has really helped," Bishop said.