A 'Promise' to keep Woodland Hills students on track

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When the Woodland Hills School District surveyed students, teachers and residents in late 2011 on the state of the district, the No. 1 concern was clear: behavioral issues among students.

In response to that concern, the board expanded the high school's Wolverine Promise program to make it available to students in grades one through 12 and reopened the Rankin Intermediate School -- which was shuttered in 2010 -- to house the program.

The Wolverine Promise is an alternative program that aims to keep suspended students in the classroom, and officials say the first year has been successful.

Principal LaMont Lyons, who managed the program at the high school last year, said he had doubts because it's a new program with a fluctuating student population, but he said his cooperative staff made for a smooth first year.

The program began with 90 students and currently has about 135, and a total of about 200 Woodland Hills students have come through the program this year, Mr. Lyons said.

Students in grades one through six are housed on the second floor, and students in grades seven through 12 are in classrooms on the first floor. Once they go to class, they stay there for the entire day -- the teachers rotate, not the students, which limits hallway disruptions.

Students have English, math, science, social studies and gym classes, which ensures that they are able to transition back into their core classes if or when they return to their home school. In addition to traditional classes, there are also morning yoga classes, counseling and other support services. Behavioral specialists handle "time outs" for students who need individualized attention, Mr. Lyons said, and the maximum number of students in a class is 12.

"The small class size and the small student population helps," Mr. Lyons said, noting that the staff of about 30 teachers, counselors, behavioral specialists, security guards, secretaries and aides know all of the students' names.

In addition to the all-day program, there's an after-school credit program that allows students to make up classes they failed or missed due to truancy or tardiness.

The minimum amount of time a student stays in the Promise program is 45 days, with some staying longer.

One of those students is Billy Cash, an 18-year-old senior from Braddock. He's spent his entire high school career in the Wolverine Promise program. He got into trouble as a student at Fairless Elementary in North Braddock, but Mr. Lyons said he's a model student in the Promise program.

Mr. Lyons said Billy earned his way out of the program, but opted to stay and hasn't had a disciplinary problem all year.

"It taught me a lot," Billy said. "You can never give up."

He will receive a diploma from Woodland Hills High School next month, and he plans to attend an 18-month program at Rosedale Technical Institute to become an auto mechanic.

Eugene David, 18, of Churchill has been in the program only this year. He said fewer distractions and a caring staff make for an easier learning environment.

"You really can't get that one-on-one time" at the high school, he said.

Eugene plans to join the Navy after graduation.

"It made me a better student ... and a better person, too," he said of the program, which he entered after breaking the high school's student code of conduct.

Joe Golden, a behavioral specialist, said about 25 students have returned to their regular schools after completing a stint in the Promise program, and about 10 of those students have had to return to the Rankin school.

"Our goal is to get them back into their regular schools," he said. "If they can't handle it, we don't send them back."

Substitute superintendent Alan Johnson said there has been "a noticeable decrease in behavioral issues," especially in the district's elementary schools.

He said he won't compile data on the numbers of suspensions and expulsions until the end of the school year, but formal disciplinary hearings that take place prior to an expulsion are down about 25 percent from last year.

Mr. Johnson said there will "undoubtedly" be changes to the program next year, although that will depend on data collected at the end of the school year.

"I know that I want to see more done to actively remediate behaviors," he said in an email. "Promise can't be just about providing minimal educational services in a more secure environment. It has to also involve actively intervening to help students make better choices."

Mr. Johnson said he hopes to explore the district's partnership with Glade Run Mental Health Services to ensure students in the Promise program are receiving enough counseling and therapy.

Mr. Lyons said students that have transitioned out of the Promise program and returned to their home schools "have maintained a positive way."

Paraprofessional Robin Baker said the program is essential for the district.

"It has to stay here," she said, "because in order for anything to work, you have to build a foundation.

"The kids here, they're just like any other kids."

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Eugene David's last name. (Published May 21, 2013)


Annie Siebert: asiebert@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1613. Twitter: @AnnieSiebert.


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