Tulsa's school board approved a plan this week to open an alternative education program for elementary school children this year. Alternative education refers to programs for students at risk.
The Tulsa public school district has provided alternative education for adolescents for the past 25 years. Seven local programs such as Street School serve underachieving students, dropouts and others with special needs. Franklin Youth Academy for middle and high school students under long-term suspension will soon move into a building under construction at 11th and Yale.
But educators say at-risk students need intervention much earlier. They say elementary schools see students mirroring the stresses of society, doing whatever they can for the attention they need. "They're in essence waving a red flag at us, saying 'can't you see that in my current situation, whether it has to do with my home, my family, or my inability to grasp this material, I'm not making it right now?'," said Rick Palazzo, Director of Alternative Education.
Elementary alternative education is not just for students with disruptive behavior.
It's also for isolated, withdrawn children and those needing medication for behavior and learning disorders. Palazzo says major cutbacks in state mental health programs all but eliminated the support families and schools need. "We're almost in a crisis situation. We've had hundreds of kids returned to school this fall without the kind of medical and prescription support they once had," he said.
The district already provides that support in a few schools. Marshall Elementary principal Kayla Bruce says early intervention works. "By getting services to them early, they do improve, they get better, and we prevent some of the labeling," said Bruce. "Then we have kids spending more time in the classroom and learning more."
Alternative education is slowly reducing the dropout rate, and supporters say starting earlier will turn the tide even faster. The choice, Palazzo says, is help them in school now or in prison later. "I just visited the new county jail where there are 27 juveniles awaiting trial," he said. " And I sat down with them and I asked them, 'when did you all start having trouble in school, having trouble on the streets?' And they told me it was in third, fourth, fifth grade." That's where Tulsa Public Schools wants to begin supporting troubled students on a surer path, the best alternative for students and society.
Nearly 1,100 students were suspended from Tulsa elementary schools last year.
The district's plan calls for a pilot program serving 60 high-risk fourth and fifth graders in addition to smaller programs within some schools.