A presentation given to the Newton County School Board May 19 by Sharp Learning Center Principal Gabriel Burnette showed that things are not nearly as bleak at the alternative school as people often believe.
According to Burnette, of the 57 students who were enrolled at Sharp in the first semester of this school year, only two of those students returned second semester for disciplinary reasons. And the number of middle and high school students has dropped from 254 enrolled in the first part of the 2008-2009 school year to 218 in current semester.
"That’s great," said board member Johnny Smith. "I think a lot of times people don’t get to see those numbers. They just hear about the negative and not the positive."
Students are sent to Sharp from their "base" school — Newton, Eastside or Alcovy High Schools for a variety of reasons: alcohol, drugs, assault/battery on a school employee, obscenity directed toward and school employee, kidnapping, homicide, weapons (firearms, knife, other), how they conduct themselves and the activities they are involved in outside school hours, cutting/defacing/damaging school bus and a continuous violation of school rules. The length of stay at the alternative school could be for one or both semesters of the school year and additional time can be added for misbehavior.
In order to return to their base school, a student must pass five out of their six classes, receive a letter of recommendation from each teacher, have good attendance and have a good discipline report with four or less referrals.
During the first semester students at Sharp were able to recover a total of 38 credits using a credit recovery system. Numbers were not available for the second semester due to school still being in session.
There were 493 less referrals issued for disciplinary infractions this school year then last year, showing a marked improvement in student behavior throughout the school year, something Burnette believes can be partially credited to his teachers and staff and their willingness to mentor the students, some of whom have never had anyone to look up to in their short lives.
"Up until you start recognizing the good within someone – until that child really believes that he or she can be good – they are going to continue to act out."
To help with that recognition, Sharp began a nine-week award and a Student of the Month award this school year to help recognize students for the positive things they do while at Sharp Learning Center.
"A lot of the reduction of referrals is due to supportive staff in the building," Burnette said. "We try to create a family at Sharp."
Another thing that has helped is prescribed physical activity for students assigned to In School Suspension. Along with their regular work, they are required to perform physical exercises to release a lot of pent up energy that keeps some students from concentrating and from being disruptive in the classroom.
With such an improvement in the student body, Burdette’s main concern is the lack of teachers to help make a difference at Sharp in the coming school year. With cuts earlier in the year to help keep the system fiscally sound, Sharp lost nine positions, one of which was an assistant principal.
"One of my biggest concerns," he said, "is will I have enough staff to accommodate my students because I never know the numbers until the kids show up each day."
Burdette seemed confident that changes could continue at Sharp and that the school may be understaffed but that the children would continue to be taught and mentored every day they were there.
"A suspension is not always the answer," he said. "I can suspend, suspend, suspend and in the end you still have a child that is uneducated. At Sharp our goal is changing behaviors to change lives and my goal is to keep these kids in school. They can’t be educated if they aren’t here."