New life for city 'at-risk' effort

NASHUA – The city’s not-so-new alternative school program, formerly known as the Academy of Learning and Technology, is officially a go for this year, as the school board formally approved the plan for the program last week.

Now called the Phoenix Program, the students and staff will now be located at the Nashua Community Council building at 440 Amherst St. The program will serve no more than 75 “at-risk” students in sixth grade through 10th grade.

The school board voted 6-1 to approve the program. Board member Robert Hallowell was the only member to vote against it. Theplan will now be submitted to the state Department of Education.

After voting on the plan, the school board then had to vote to officially close the Academy of Learning and Technology. That vote was unanimous.

“It’s not every day you close a school,” board President Tom Vaughan noted afterward.

The vote was essentially a formality and means the school district will go from having 18 schools to 17 schools. Ed Hendry, assistant superintendent, said the city needed to close the school so the state could recognize that the district was converting it to an off-site program.

The 32-page plan for the Phoenix Program outlines every detail of how the program will operate, including curriculum, discipline, transitional support and the admission process.

At the meeting, board members asked questions about some parts of the plan. One unique aspect of the program is that students will attend school from 8:50 a.m. until 3:33 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and Friday.

But on Thursdays, students will still start at 8:50 a.m. but will get out at 1 p.m.

At a meeting July 23, Patti Place, who will stay on as principal of the program, said teachers and staff would stay Thursday afternoons until 3:30 and would use that time to work on specific student issues, including behavior issues.

“Just to have a time to talk about what’s going on in the building,” she said. “The largest amount of time will be work on behavior issues and concerns.”

At last week’s meeting, Hallowell asked administrators whether that would count toward professional development or planning time, which could have a contractual impact.

Jim Mealey, the district’s chief operating officer, said he wasn’t sure, but guessed that it probably wouldn’t count toward planning time. Teachers are guaranteed a certain amount of planning time in their contract.

The plan also includes details on program evaluation. According to the plan, district administrators will monitor the program and present an annual report on student growth and program improvements to the school board.

The district had to change the scope of its alternative program after state education officials said the Academy of Learning and Technology was not meeting the state’s minimum standards for public school approval.

In response, the district converted the school to what is defined as an “off-site program,” which is not considered a school and does not have to meet the same requirements.

The ALT school has had some of the lowest-performing students in the state on the New England Common Assessment Program, the state’s standardized test.

The NECAP measures student ability in math, reading and writing. Last year, 95 percent of the school’s middle school students were not proficient in math and 97 percent were not proficient in reading.

Every student tested in writing scored substantially below proficient.

But as Place has pointed out at previous meetings, most students come into the school far below grade level, and the NECAP doesn’t capture the progress they make from year to year.

As a result of the low scores, the school had been designated “in need of improvement” by the state. But Tim Kurtz, director of assessment for the state, said that designation would not carry over to the Phoenix Program.

“We only hold schools accountable under the law,” he said.

Students attending the program will still be tested and the program will receive a report of the scores, Kurtz said. The scores will not count against the students’ “home” schools, but will count for the district’s overall performance, he said.

The district pays more on a per-pupil basis for students at the alternative school when compared with all other students.

Last year, the school’s operating budget was about $1 million. And with an enrollment of approximately 100 students, that’s about $10,000 per student. The district’s overall per-pupil spending was $8,473.55 in 2006-07, according to state data.

The program’s budget is going down slightly this year and enrollment is dropping to 75 students or fewer. Many of the students who attended the school last year will be going to the program this year.

According to the program plan, students are recommended for placement by principals, “but ultimately, the student’s parent/guardian has the final decision.”

Frequent absenteeism, disciplinary problems, low academic performance and drug abuse are among the factors that are used to determine whether a student is recommended for placement.

Board member Steve Haas said it should be expected that more money is going toward these children.

“We need to expect that we’re going to pay more for these students than the mainstream students,” he said. “They have more needs.”

The school’s staff has been reorganized to include a student-management coordinator, who will be responsible for behavior. The school board also approved last week adding a part-time outreach counselor for the program.

The city has had to pay approximately $227,000 to outfit the new site for the program. The school had been located in the basement of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Nashua since opening in 2002, a space that had few windows and little ventilation.

The district was forced to find a new home for the program when the Boys & Girls Club informed the district last year that it would need the space for its expansion.

Shawn Smith, director of plant operations, said the facility would be ready for the first day of school on Aug. 26.