RACINE — Racine Unified is creating a new program for its most behaviorally challenged students.
Starting Jan. 27, students with significant behavior issues will be educated and counseled at Turning Point Academy, a new district program that, pending School Board approval Monday, will be housed at St. Patrick Parish’s John XXIII Educational Center, 1101 Douglas Ave.
The new academy is part of a larger district revamp of alternative programming that repurposes Unified’s Mack Center, the site where those behaviorally challenged students often get sent currently.
Some education experts say such an academy could perpetuate bad behaviors while further isolating already at-risk students. But Unified officials said dedicated staff and a therapeutic program model will give those students a fresh start at success without the stigma of being a “Mack Center” kid.
The Mack Center
The Mack Center began as a place for at-risk middle and high schoolers, especially those lagging behind in course completion, struggling in a large school, or facing challenges such as pregnancy or homelessness. The center worked well at first, getting many students back on track and returned to their original schools, said Eric Gallien, Unified’s chief of schools.
But as time went on, because the district lacked a solid program for behaviorally challenged students, the Mack Center became a dumping ground, Gallien said.
“It was just literally ‘This kid messed up today. ... I’m sending you a fax, this kid is going to show up at Mack tomorrow,’ ” he said, adding that meant the Mack Center was serving two very different student populations without really distinguishing between them. “It was trying to service two worlds (without) having a true model for either one.”
So moving forward, administrative committees will determine which at-risk kids can get help at their original school, which have behavior issues that must be addressed and which can be served by district alternative programs for credit recovery, virtual school, the GED and more.
Those various alternative programs will be housed primarily in the Mack Center building, which will no longer have that name because of the stigma attached to it. For now, Unified officials are simply referring to it as Racine Alternative Programs. The students with behavior issues, meanwhile, will go to the new Turning Point Academy.
“Instead of just being sent here, sent there, dropped here, put there, it’s more of a planning tool to make better choices for the kids,” said Bob Holzem, Unified’s director of alternative schools and programs.
Of the about 75 kids currently at the Mack Center, 1325 Park Ave., about 25 will return to their original schools, about 40 will go into an alternative program in the Mack Center building and about 10 will head to Turning Point Academy, Gallien said.
The new academy will offer those students core academic classes, character development and weekly group therapy sessions. There will also be a shortened school day once a week for staff to make home visits or do service learning projects with students, Gallien said.
The academy will serve 60 students maximum and will emulate Unified’s existing Transitional Education Program, which has been successful in helping students who’ve been in jail or juvenile detention transition back to their original schools, Gallien said.
That program will move to the John XXIII Educational Center after June. The center will continue operating as an after-school tutoring, mentoring and parenting help location after the school day, Gallien said.
Though TEP has worked, some experts worry “warehousing” behaviorally challenged students in a specialized environment could do more harm than good.
Isolating such students can deprive them of the normal peer interactions that teach them how to behave better and work effectively in a school setting, said Bradford Brown, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Jane Sundius, director of education and youth development for the Baltimore office of the international social justice nonprofit Open Society Foundations. “Instead of learning how to work more constructively in society, they learn from each other how to work more destructively,” Brown said.
Gallien said that won’t happen at Turning Point Academy though, because staff will be specially trained to understand the root cause of students’ challenges, rather than to just react to those challenges.
Brown added behavioral programs tend to be more successful when housed in an actual school; then students have normal peer interactions and easy access to fun things like extracurriculars.
Gallien said that in-school model won’t work in Racine, though.
“I could probably create and carve the space in Park (High School) to make that happen but then there’s that stigmatism about that room, those kids,” he said. “So those kids (are going to instead) come to an area where there’s no one across the parking lot saying, ‘Oh, you’re going to that.’ ”
Holzem added: “It’s a fresh start.”
Turning Point Academy funding, staffing and next steps
The Racine Unified School Board will vote Monday on location and staffing recommendations for Turning Point Academy.
District administrators are asking board members to let them negotiate a lease of up to $59,225 annually to house the academy at the John XXIII Educational Center, 1101 Douglas Ave. Racine County, which partners with Unified to provide specialized programming for at-risk students, would provide a case manager for Turning Point Academy and would pay the majority of the lease, leaving the district to pay only $14,225 annually, according to School Board documents and Eric Gallien, Unified’s chief of schools.
District administrators also are asking the board to approve a $180,000 contract addendum to fund about three Turning Point Academy support staff plus student transportation and some staff training. Those things would be provided by Professional Services Group, a Wisconsin company that functions as a private social services agency and already contracts with Racine Unified for other programs, said Dan Baran, Professional Services Group co-owner.
Turning Point Academy would likely cost Unified between $600,000 and $700,000 annually, with the Professional Services Group contract addendum, the building lease and nine district staffers — a coordinator, six teachers and two assistants — included in that total. Those funds would come from within Unified’s regular budget; district staff would move to the academy from other posts and the cost of the Professional Services Group contract addendum would be covered by eliminating some vacant positions, Gallien said.
The School Board meeting is at 6:30 p.m. Monday at Unified’s central office, 3109 Mount Pleasant St.