For years, Pinellas County Schools officials have debated what to do with chronically disruptive students.
Now, they are hoping a new team being created as they consider staff cuts to the school district’s behavioral intervention program can help difficult students remain in their schools and save money at the same time.
The “Triage and Training” team, or T&T, will include four support specialists, two social workers, two educational diagnosticians and two behavioral specialists, all of whom already work for the school district.
Their charge is to help schools set up programs and curriculums to help chronically disruptive students before having to send them to alternative schools, where such students are reassigned to continue their education as part of the Pathways to Success behavior intervention program.
Low teacher-to-student ratios, strict behavioral standards and intensive course recovery in the Pathways program are meant to put students back on the right track; but those factors also make the program more expensive to operate.
Making sure schools are using Pathways as a last resort instead of a primary option will not only help students stay enrolled in their original schools but also save the school district money, Deputy Superintendent William Corbett said at Tuesday’s School Board workshop.
Only 52 of 89 elementary and middle schools have ever referred students to the Pathways to Success program, making it very expensive to operate, Corbett said. Next year, cutting six teachers, seven behavior specialists and 10 assistants from the program, which currently only serves 54 students, will save the school district a little more than a million dollars.
“This team is larger, stronger, more comprehensive and provides a wider range of services then schools have ever had when they’ve identified a student that was really, really struggling,” Associate Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Bill Lawrence said at the Tuesday meeting.
The team should start working this fall and responding to requests for help from schools. If a school feels that it is unable to properly handle its disruptive students, it could “call 911” and receive immediate assistance from T&T before sending the students off to an alternative school, said Director of Dropout Prevention Diana Lenox.
Pathways is a good safety net in extreme cases but doesn’t take care of disciplinary problems encountered on a day to day basis, said Tarpon Springs Middle School Principal Susan Keller. Schools are required to create their own disciplinary programs to deal with troubled students, but more oversight from the school district would be helpful and more effective in the long run, she said.
“We try to exhaust everything we can here in a school setting to help them, but every student is very different; so what works for one may not work for the other,” Keller said. “Do we need to do more? We always need to do more, but I don’t think there are any easy answers. We’ll always take extra help.”
T&T will analyze the immediate needs of students, what employees schools have on staff and what they can do with existing resources to better handle disruptive students. Pathways schools, such as 74th Street Elementary in St. Petersburg and Pinellas Secondary School in Pinellas Park, would be used as a last resort, if those interventions failed, Lenox said.
“There’s always the child who, case by case, needs more than the 911 call it’s the emergency room,” Lenox said. “That’s when dropout prevention needs to come in and work with the child, but we want them to stay in their school. We need to help them but then get them back.”
In some cases, the answer could be as simple as setting up a separate classroom in a school for disruptive students. In others, it could be re-evaluating a school’s staff and changing job descriptions.
“It sounds incredible, and I tell you in my travels to different schools they always want to take care of their own children, they just need to find out what they need,” said School Board member Terry Krassner. “They never want to give up, and this has to be huge for them.”
Statewide, there haven’t been many alternative solutions, said Superintendent Michael Grego. School district officials sent a survey to all 67 Florida school districts asking how they’ve been able to successfully work with disruptive students in their schools, but no one replied.
“I know this will help the aspect of how we get better services faster,” Grego said. “We’re hitting a point where we just keep spinning our wheels, so I think this is worth doing and sharing with the rest of the state.”
The school district has spent years brainstorming more effective ways to work with disruptive students, but it’s a need that has yet to truly be taken care of, said School Board member Linda Lerner.
“I’m an optimist, I think it sounds good, but there are always going to be challenges,” Lerner said.