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Bedford County Public Schools looks to dismantle suspension center, continue behavioral supports at base schools
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Bedford County Public Schools looks to dismantle suspension center, continue behavioral supports at base schools

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Bedford County Public Schools is working to improve behavioral and mental health support for its students by shifting services offered at the Alternative Education Center to the division’s base schools.

In a presentation to the Bedford County School Board at its Thursday night meeting, division staff said enrollment at the Alternative Education Center has decreased over the last three years, and current research shows keeping students connected to their base schools leads to fewer discipline issues.

Students are placed in the alternative education program when they are expelled or receive a long-term suspension from their base school, or when they need individualized academic or behavioral support. The program serves between seven and 50 students at a time, depending on the various need throughout a school year, and has 15 staff members.

In the 2018-19 school year, 134 students were served at the center. That number decreased to 98 in the 2019-20 school year and is down to 33 this year. The division said the decrease is partially due to the fact that discipline incidents are down this year due to the pandemic, but also a reflection of the alternatives-to-suspension programs and other behavioral and mental health services the division is providing.

During the last school year, administrators in the division and at its three high schools began to explore and expand the schools’ alternatives-to-suspension programs. These programs exist to address student behavioral and mental health needs without taking them out of the school environment.

Karen Woodford, chief learning officer for Bedford County Public Schools, said the division has been working since 2014 to refine its approach to support students academically and behaviorally. Woodford and her team presented the board with a report on mental health services and an alternative education plan Thursday night, recommending that Alternative Education Center staff be moved to base schools to continue providing services there.

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“It is important to point out that our Alternative Education Center’s administration, teachers and staff have provided excellent support and learning opportunities for many students throughout their time as a center, and this is no reflection of any concerns there,” Woodford said. “This shift in support is based on recent research and the desire to keep students attached to their community school.”

Woodford said keeping students connected to their base schools is the best way to reduce discipline issues and keep at-risk students in school.

Woodford said no Alternative Education Center staff members would lose their jobs; the plan recommends that these staff members be transferred to positions in their certification areas at base schools where they would work to provide support to students and to support the alternatives-to-suspension programs.

Woodford added that students who are expelled from school long-term would be transferred to Bedford Connects Remote Learning — the division’s virtual learning option that was created amid the COVID-19 pandemic for students wishing to learn from home.

The Alternative Education Center is currently housed in one wing of the Susie G. Gibson Science and Technology Center. If the center is reorganized and staff are relocated to base schools, Woodford said that space could house a heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) program at the school.

“I really like the plan, I think it sounds very exciting in many ways — better supporting students, not making them leave their base schools,” Board Chairman Jason Johnson said. “And, as well, the excitement of being able to add another high-demand CTE program at Susie Gibson.”

Woodford said she discussed this plan with board members prior to Thursday’s meeting and many expressed concern about a full implementation of these recommendations before a new superintendent is hired and has an opportunity to weigh in. Woodford said she and other administrators would meet this week to determine a way to potentially phase in these recommendations so adjustments may be made by the incoming superintendent if needed.

The board will consider more options regarding these recommendations at its upcoming meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday.

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