Pubdate: Sun, 03 Aug 2003 Source: Decatur Daily (AL) Copyright: 2003 The Decatur Daily Contact: http://www.decaturdaily.com/decaturdaily/index.shtml Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/696 Author: Bayne Hughes Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/topic/zero+tolerance LEARNING CENTER HELPS STOP EXPULSIONS After catching a student with an illegal pill earlier this year, West Morgan High School Principal Wayne Kimbrell became an amateur investigator to catch three more involved. All four faced expulsion for violating the Morgan County Board of Education's zero-tolerance policy for drugs, alcohol and firearms, but they got a respite at the Morgan County Learning Center. Morgan County did not expel a students during the past year because of the center, an alternative school for sixth through 12th graders that opened last year as another safety rope for students hanging from the cliffs of trouble. School officials said this may be a first for the school system. Superintendent Don Murphy said the program allows him to "look parents in the face and tell them, 'We've given your child a second chance.' " According to Learning Center Principal Bill Hopkins Jr., the system averaged expelling about 28 students a year, the same number sent to the center last year for violating the zero-tolerance policy. "This was something I'd hope for, but I didn't know if it was a realistic expectation," Hopkins said. "I felt like it would lower our expulsion rate. I didn't know it would wipe it out." Another 28 went to the school because of habitual or "very serious" offenses. Three students graduated in May. "All improved their test scores and grades," Hopkins said. Step Before Expulsion Funded with a $114,000 grant from the Children First state fund, the center added steps to the discipline process before the expulsion hearing that forces school board members to act as judge and jury. Previously, if students violated the zero-tolerance policy, the school board's only choice was expulsion, according to Morgan County Board of Education President Carolyn Wallace. "Those hearings are very stressful," Wallace said. "They beg for a second chance, but we can't give them a second chance and maintain the discipline in the schools." Prior to the center's opening, the system had alternative schools at Brewer and Danville high schools. But this kept some students on the campus where they got in trouble and zero-tolerance violators could not attend, Murphy said. Kimbrell said a change in philosophy is also helping students and teachers. Previously, teachers sent lesson plans and books with the students to the alternative schools. They then had to constantly communicate with the alternative school teachers to keep the students on track in class at their home school. Now a transfer to the Morgan County Learning Center is treated like a permanent move. Teachers communicate a student's standing, but the Learning Center takes over and center teachers follow the Alabama Course of Study requirements for graduation. "That really took a lot of extra work off our teachers and let them concentrate on their own classes," Kimbrell said. Students participate in character education classes. The Decatur Police Department sends officers to work with the students, and mental health workers counsel when needed. The center rewards students for good behavior with monthly birthday cakes and savings bonds. "We've had very few discipline problems once they reached the center," Hopkins said. "We suspended one student for three days, but we're usually able to discipline in house so they don't miss school." Few Repeat Offenders Hopkins said the center usually does not take repeat offenders after they've gone back to a home school. School officials may consider a middle school student for the second time. "If they get in trouble again, this time they're headed for a expulsion hearing with the school board and superintendent." School officials know they probably won't be able avoid expulsion hearings every year. "This is a first for us," Murphy said. "And I hope it will continue. But I'm sure we'll have a child out there that won't change and will get in trouble again. At least this gives them one more chance to change." All four students returned to West Morgan after 45 days at the Learning Center, and Kimbrell said they are doing well. "They're good kids and they came back with good attitudes," Kimbrell said. "They just made a mistake, and they wouldn't gotten another chance if it wasn't for the center."