CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - Albemarle County Public Schools is taking a new approach to how it handles suspensions. The new program, called STEP, cuts down on out-of-school suspension by keeping kids in school, with specialized emotional and academic support.
The program sees students arrive at school at 9:45 a.m., once other students are in class, to work on academic work for the first part of the day. After their academic work is done, the students meet with a counselor to discuss the incident that led to the suspension, and strategies to help them avoid future incidents, before leaving early.
“We want them in the building. We want them working with our staff to get the support they need so that they can come back to school and be successful," Jack Jouett Middle School Principal Ashby Johnson said.
ACPS administrators and counselors say the program is a preferable alternative to out-of-school suspensions. They noted students suspended out of school often have to spend those days alone, if parents cannot take off of work.
“I love that the student is not isolated," Jack Jouett Middle School counselor Clayton Ver Planck added. “Instead, we are kind of wrapping our arms around them and bringing them back in.”
Makhia Douglas, a 7th grader at Jack Jouett Middle School, participated in the STEP program rather than receive a suspension.
“I didn’t like it when I first started, but when I talk to a counselor she felt I would be better off in there," Douglas said. "If you had a problem or miscommunication with the person you were in their way, they will help you face your problems.”
Douglas worked with school counselors to deal with the issues that led to her potentially receiving an out-of-school suspension. The program also teaches students mediation and conflict resolution skills, should future issues arise.
“We’re seeing them transfer and help other friends mediate conflicts or talk through and strategize, ‘How can we, you know, figure this out on our own?’, which is great," Ver Planck said. “We’re setting them up with skills that they’re going to use after Jouett.”
Jouett Middle School was one of two pilot schools for the program in Albemarle County. Jouett has seen out-of-school suspensions drop 77% since implementing the program in 2017. Burley Middle School, the other pilot school, has seen them drop 87%.
“When we suspend students out of school, we kind of relinquish our ability to shape behavior and help students move beyond the behaviors that they may have been involved with that again could escalate to more difficult scenarios," ACPS Director of Student Services Nicholas King said.
Albemarle County Public Schools plans to extend the program to four more middle schools and high schools in the 2020-2021 school year. The program is currently in five schools, including Albemarle High School and Monticello High School.