Pubdate: Sun, 03 Aug 2003
Source: Decatur Daily (AL)
Copyright: 2003 The Decatur Daily
Author: Bayne Hughes


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

"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."