By Crystal Wylie
Register News Writer
After 17 minutes of debate about its cost-effectiveness, Madison County School Board Chair Mona Isaacs struck the sounding block with her gavel to end discussion about the success of PASS.
The conversation came after a 13-minute presentation about Positive Approach to Student Success, one of two programs the county school district began in 2007 to replace “alternative school.”
PASS is an intervention program that seeks to deal with behavioral, social and academic issues without removing students from regular classes, according to the video.
A second program, called “day treatment,” deals with students who are involved in the court system. It follows guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) and has multiple funding sources.
Last year, PASS cost the district $469,000 and day treatment pulled $270,000 from the general fund. The total cost of day treatment is about $430,000, but the difference comes from DJJ funds and other outside sources.
Although day treatment is separate from PASS, the two programs collaborate to provide supports for children transitioning from day treatment back into the classroom, said Ben Winkler, who oversees both programs and is the director of the district’s Bellevue Learning Center.
“Alternative programs very often became dumping grounds,” said Winkler, who saw the transition of the district’s alternative school to day treatment. “In my experience, they (alternative programs) have not been successful.”
He said educators across the county are accepting responsibility for reforming behaviors instead of reacting to them.
“When you divide the number of kids into the grand total (cost), it gets to be a fantastic amount of money,” said board member John Lackey. “This is the problem with the program… Nobody is suggesting we lose the program, but we want to be able to cut back on the cost per student. If it averages out over a year’s time at 30 kids at a time, divided into the grand total, it gets way over $10,000 a year per kid. That’s just way too much.”
But Lackey’s equation only included the day-treatment students. “There are hundreds of students in PASS,” Winkler said.
The day-treatment program enrolls no more than 30 students at a time and up to 60 a year.
The PASS program employs 15. Each county middle school and Madison Southern High School has a PASS “coach” and one paraeducator. Madison Central High has a PASS coach and two paraeducators.
Each coach serves around 30 students “on paper,” said Christie Fain-Shanks, the PASS coach at Foley Middle School. “But we’re working with hundreds of lives per day.”
Technically, PASS serves approximately 450 students district-wide, about 30 students for each coach or paraeducator. However, coaches at the board meeting argued they touched many more lives than “what is on a piece of paper.” Many other factors cannot be calculated in cost per student, they said.
“You can’t replace that (PASS) with alternative school,” Fain-Shanks said. “Because I guarantee you, you will be suspending more than you’ve ever seen because the problems in our schools now are much greater than they were when I started teaching 16 years ago.”
The PASS presentation reported the percentage of countywide middle and high school suspensions in 2007-08 before PASS was 9.69 percent, or 868 suspensions. By 2012-13, it had been reduced to 4.96 percent, or 351 suspensions.
Winkler said PASS also prevents students from making “drastic decisions down the road” that would land them in day treatment.
Central’s PASS coach Brandon Fritz said he may interact with more than 200 students a day, not just his PASS students.
“They see us in the halls, they know they can come talk to us, they know we care about them. That’s what you can’t put on paper,” he told the board.
Even academically successful students can benefit from the counseling services of the PASS program, Fritz said.
“And everybody would agree that’s a good thing, but when we add this extra layer of intervention with a 4.0 student, that gets pretty expensive,” Lackey said. “We don’t want to be the nanny for everybody. We expect people to take responsibility, and if they’re having a bad day, okay, tough it out.”
Both Fritz and Fain-Shanks disagreed. Some of these students have “bad lives,” not just bad days, they said.
“It is our responsibility to provide support for these students,” said board member Beth Brock.
Fritz told of a student addicted to drugs who had changed his life through the program.
“If there’s one success story, it’s worth it,” he said. “If we put a little more money into education to help the kids so we don’t have to pay for them when they’re out of school, that’s the difference.”
Lackey didn’t agree with Fritz’s reasoning.
“That argument just doesn’t wash when you look at it. There’s got to be a cost-effective balance,“ Lackey replied.
Superintendent Tommy Floyd said back in 2007, there were “initial considerations of what alternative schools were costing us back then.”
The district looked at the number of staff employed, the number of students served, as well as the number of students who ended up returning to the alternative program, he said.
“We were looking at high suspension rates and low success rates for many of the students,” Floyd said.
Information about the cost of the alternative program prior to 2007 was not available when requested from central office Friday afternoon. Documents containing those numbers are stored away and are not included in the databanks of the district’s currently used computer system, said Erin Stewart, the district’s community education director.
The conversation Thursday night continued back and forth between Lackey and the PASS coaches, who were joined by many of their colleagues in the audience, until Isaacs pounded the gavel and thanked Winkler for his presentation.
“There are a lot of kids that we work with, that when they come to us, it’s the only time during the day they feel loved,” Winkler said in closing.
Board member Becky Coyle said she appreciated the testimonies of the students.
“It’s good to know the majority, if not all of them, in their testimonies said they appreciated somebody standing up for them, being there for them, having confidence in them and showing them that someone cared.”
A few videos were included in the PASS presentation, one of which was of a middle school boy who said he got into seven fights last year, but this year, he has been involved no fights.
“I was disrespecting my peers,” he said. “And now I get along with all my peers.”
The student said last year, his grades were mostly F’s. “And now I have three Bs, a D and an A plus.”
The student said he plans to raise that D to a B.
“PASS showed me that I need to stay out of trouble for various reasons,” he said. “I like to stay out of trouble because it makes me feel better as a person.”
See Sunday’s paper for a second story about Thursday’s school board meeting.
Crystal Wylie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 623-1669, Ext. 6696.