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Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011 05:30 am

Dealing with behavior problems of youngest pupils

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Alternative education programs are being extended to the youngest students.

As of this year, District 186 is formally prepared to deal with students with extreme behavioral problems in even the youngest grades.

In past years, the district has housed an alternative education program for students in third through fifth grade, but it wasn’t defined in teachers’ contracts. The change ensures both teachers and students are protected from improper placement during a time when schools have seen more and more students with difficult home lives and stresses – like unemployed or deployed parents – that can cause them to act out, says Springfield Education Association president Dan Ford.

For the moment, only one student is enrolled in the alternative elementary program, which is staffed by a teacher and a teacher’s aide at a cost of $63,850. In each of the previous two years, the program taught two students, down from four students in each of the prior three years.

Jane Chard, District 186 coordinator of teaching and learning, says removal from the regular classroom to an alternative classroom is a last resort step agreed to by students’ parents. “In each school there is a process that we have to go through before a student is recommended for alternative programs,” Chard says. “Alternative education is not something that we take lightly nor do we expect it to be a dumping ground for a problem student.”

The contract requires principals to show they’ve tried several approaches to changing a student’s behavior patterns before that student can be sent to a separate alternative education program. Some of those approaches are included in a “wraparound” program called PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports), which the district credits for decreases in out-of-school suspensions. PBIS supports include student check-ins with adults who remind students about appropriate classroom behavior and identifying mentors and community programs that can help improve behavior. [See “Schools ‘wrap’ troubled kids.” Illinois Times. Jan. 13, 2011.]

That program saw cuts this year, as two federal stimulus-funded PBIS specialist positions were eliminated, but Ford says schools must still go through all the same steps before moving students to alternative education. “It really makes several people look at what we’re doing and that it’s in the best interest of the student.”

Other central Illinois schools are implementing similar techniques for dealing with student behavioral problems. Though Decatur Public Schools’ director of community engagement Jeff Gaunt says his district has no separate alternative education program for elementary students, the district has been building its PBIS program, which is now in 10 of Decatur’s 22 schools, up from four last year.

Peoria’s public schools planned this year to start providing, like Springfield, alternative education options for elementary students. No students have been placed in that program yet, and the district is still resolving some confusion about the program’s goals, says William Salzman, director of student affairs. But when the program is fully up and running, the district should be able to educate through the alternative program between five and 10 students in first through fifth grade.

Contact Rachel Wells at rwells@illinoistimes.com

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