When the staff and students of Augusta Evans School moved to a new facility on Biloxi Avenue this summer, the old building on Florida Street was planned to be yet another abandoned school in midtown.
However, Star Academy Principal Ron Coleman had other plans for the old school, which now hosts that program as well as Mobile County’s alternative school for junior high school students.
Some confusion about the alternative program eventually led to rumors that “at risk” students and students with legal troubles would be attending the school. Coleman said it’s not the first time that perception has followed his students.
“We don’t get any adjudicated students here, and we don’t have any children with serious problems in this building,” Coleman said. “I’ll put my career of 30 years on the line for that.”
The alternative school was originally housed in Chickasaw, but the county system lost its facility there when the city formed its own school system. It was then, both the alternative school and the Star Academy were moved into the Mobile County Training School.
“We only had 10 classrooms, one of which was in a separate building,” Coleman said. “We were sharing another school’s space, and we had to adjust our schedule around them.”
The move to Florida Street provides space for a full-time nurse and councilor, and has made it easier to separate the kids in the different programs. Coleman said it also gives the students a school to call their own.
Though they may not be facing any legal issues, students are placed in alternative school for a number of conduct violations.
Coleman, who’s been involved with the program for five years, said the school would typically house around 80 students in grades 7-8. He also said “alternative” is a word he doesn’t like to use.
“Alternative just sounds too negative,” he said. “I prefer to call it ‘optional’ school.”
Despite his preferences, alternative school is far from optional when Mobile County students break the rules outlined in the student handbook. Students can be required to attend alternative school for one semester and sometimes up to year, though Coleman said those cases are rare.
“Usually students are only here for an entire year if they’ve been recommended for expulsion to the board and the board chooses to place the child here,” Coleman said. “That all goes through the principal and then through student services. They make the decisions about how long a child will be here.”
The school only takes students in grades 7-8. Students in grades 9-12 with discipline issues are sent to the Twilight Program, which is facilitated after hours at each of the system’s high schools.
Coleman said any type of misbehavior could land a student in an alternative program, but adjudicated students are exclusively handled through the P.O.I.N.T.E. Academy – located in the Toulminville area.
The P.O.I.N.T.E. (Progressive Opportunities In Today’s Education) Academy is administered by the Boy’s and Girls Club of South Alabama and isn’t technically a Mobile County school, though it does use the MCPSS curriculum.
The system does act as a flow-through agency for nearly $2 million in state funds for the academy each year, and it also employees a transition specialist for students returning from P.O.I.N.T.E. to a typical school environment.
“It’s a very specific program to provide educational services for those students,” Superintendent Martha Peek said. “The goal is eventually for them to transition back into their regular school. The funding comes from state foundation funds, and they provide a per-student cost that allows those students to be in the program.”
Peek emphasized the school was not officially a part of the MCPSS system, but did say they work closely with the academy – especially as students prepare to make the transition from P.O.I.N.T.E.
As for the old Augusta Evans building in Midtown, the majority of its students are enrolled in the Star Academy.
Star Academy is designed to help overage students entering the 8th grade catch up to their appropriate grade level. When completed successfully, Star Academy students can move through three grade levels in two academic years.
According to Coleman, the students at the Star Academy are there for one purpose – to get their academic circumstances corrected.
“These kids want to graduate on time and with their peers,” Coleman said. “We try to nurture them and make sure they know everything they need to know and are equipped to go in to high school.”
Each year, only 80 students are allowed into the Star Academy, which is comprised of four core classes and one elective each semester. Coleman called the school’s curriculum rigorous, and though it’s technology driven, said teachers still work closely with students.
Only students who have completed 7th grade and are ages 15-16 as they enter the 8th grade are eligible to apply to the Star Academy. School councilors work to identify the students who could benefit from the program and Star Academy teachers help with the selection process.
Coleman said both the alternative school and Star Academy have five full-time teachers. The school also has a councilor, a nurse and an assistant principal.
“This is the only program like this in the state of Alabama,” Coleman said. “We’ve had districts from Louisiana and Mississippi travel here to look at our program and how it works.”
Two systems in Mississippi have already adopted the model used in the Star Academy – a program that, in only its fourth year, has produced a consistently increasing number of high school students on track to graduate with their peers.
Coleman said the move to Augusta Evans was his idea, and though it’s a work in progress, he’s grateful the school board approved the move.
“We’ve increased the number of students each year,” Coleman said. “We give the students an opportunity to pursue that dream and the opportunity to correct any problems they have academically along the way.”
Coleman extended an invitation to tour the school to anyone with questions about the facility, its curriculum or the students.
“Come and talk to the children,” he said. “Don’t go on what someone is saying without knowing the facts. These are well-mannered children with a desire to do well.”