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Expelled students are often sent to 'adaptive learning sites.' What are they?

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Rockford Public Schools often use a little-known form of exclusionary discipline called “expulsions-in-abeyance” or EIAs.

When a student is handed an expulsion-in-abeyance, they can be sent away from their school for anywhere from a few months to a few years. Those students, who RPS chief of schools Morgan Gallagher says “are often on track and doing well in school,” are sent to "adaptive learning sites."

In some districts, there may only be one school where students with an EIA can be sent. In Rockford, there are three: Roosevelt Community Education Center, Innovative Learning Center and the Regional Safe Schools Program at Summit Academy.

Transitioning to an alternative school can be a challenge. That’s on top of starting to work through social-emotional and behavioral issues that landed them there in the first place.

For one, they have very different schedules than a traditional school. Tammy Shippert is RPS’ executive principal of adaptive learning and the principal at Roosevelt Community Education Center.

“We have some students that are on half schedules, some are on full schedules, we're very flexible,” she said.

Some students on EIAs only learn for a few hours a day. Roosevelt is the only adaptive site owned and operated by RPS, so they’re still using the same curriculum they did at their old school. At Innovative Learning Center and Summit, they use an online curriculum called Edgenuity. At Innovative, they can even pick what time of day they want to learn.

Different curriculums are one of the reasons that, starting next year, Rockford hopes to reduce the number of students sent to schools like Summit, in favor of their in-house site at Roosevelt. There they have more oversight and communication with those students. Gallagher at RPS also says students have more academic success, better attendance, more credit attainment, and few behavior incidents than when they outsource them.

But students don’t have the option to choose which alternative school they want to go to, they are referred by the district. Innovative was created a decade ago specifically to help Rockford students at risk of not graduating, but students are sent there for reasons other than academics, like behavior or attendance.

The Regional Safe Schools Program at Summit Academy has been around for less than two years. It’s the only Rockford adaptive learning site that serves expelled middle school students as well as high schoolers.

Summit is operated by the Boone-Winnebago County Regional Office of Education. It serves students from 13 different districts, including RPS. Students are also sent there for both behavioral issues and credit attainment.

Morgan Gallagher at RPS says they want to focus more on why students are sent to each school like having Innovative only for students on an EIA and Summit only for students who are expelled.

Nicole Brady is Summit’s executive director. She says they operate very differently than a typical school, especially for students just starting.

“They're in a self-contained classroom like you would see in an elementary school," she said. "Even if you are an 11th-grade student who had just been expelled, you would be inside the same classroom all day, including for lunch.”

She says those restrictions often fall off after a few weeks once students show they can learn more independently and are engaging socially.

Brady says social-emotional learning and restorative practices are the foundation of how Summit runs.

“At a typical school, 80% of the staff is going to be licensed teachers and 20% is going to be support personnel. At Summit, it’s flipped. 80% of our staff is counseling, social work, behavioral intervention, admin -- those kinds of roles," said Brady.

Students and staff eat two meals a day with each other and students meet with a counselor or social worker daily. She says they don’t have issues with fights, even with many students coming to Summit because of previous behavioral issues.

“When you think about a Rockford Public School, or really any of the other high schools or middle schools in the state, they're experiencing anywhere from two to five physical fights a day," she said. "We've had three experiences of physical aggression this year, and all three have been at dismissal outside.”

Enrollment changes rapidly at an adaptive school like Summit. Students are constantly being sent back to their original school with new students filtering in nearly every day. But, she says she doesn’t want these schools to be a revolving door where students wait out the clock until they finally are allowed to go back to their home school.

“I think for a long time, not just Summit but regional programs, in general, were thought of this place we put kids we don't know how to manage. We pay a reduced rate for them to come to school and we just hope to not hear a whole lot," she said.

Rockford Public Schools administrators say the district hands out around 250 discipline-related “expulsions-in-abeyance” every year. State data on EIAs isn’t readily available, so it’s hard to say where that ranks RPS compared to the rest of the state.