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Montgomery Public School System looks to revamp alternative school program

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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

There are disturbing new revelations about the long-term impact on students from being in alternative school. Some critics say the schools are linked to criminal activity, calling them the "Classroom to prison pipeline".

As new numbers surface, the Montgomery Public School System is planning a new alternative school approach, one that's intensive and focuses first on student behavior and then academics.

"Counseling at 90 minutes a day," says MPS student support officer Sophia Johnson, "and we want to be able to address the reasons that they were sent to the school."     

Johnson is charged with executing the mission of shifting the framework of Montgomery's alternative school. This time, it will include parents who are mandated to attend at least two counseling sessions.

"These are the children that could end up committing crimes or could end up incarcerated," Johnson says, "and we don't want that."

Studies show that states can pay now or pay later when it comes to addressing at-risk behavior. The cost of students with juvenile criminal status is around $50,000 per year, but additional help and counseling are a fraction of the cost at just $5,000 annually.

It's something the Southern Poverty Law Center is thrilled to see. Teaching tolerance specialist Emily Chiariello says academic success is solely hinged on a student's social and emotional well-being. She urges teachers to use a responsive approach in the classroom to understand students' at risk behavior.

"If I am feeling threatened, maybe he's feeling threatened," Chiariello explains of an example student. "If I'm feeling the need to exert power or control in this moment, maybe she's feeling like I've compromised her sense of empowerment."

Chiariello, and Equal Justice Initiative director Bryan Stevenson believe strict testing requirements force educators to look past students' emotional well-being to meet increasing demands. That, in turn, leaves educators no other choice than to send students to alternative learning sites.

"There's no question that no institution has a greater opportunity to disrupt cycles of failure, criminality, violence and dysfunction more than our school systems," Stevenson explains.

At risk students now have an advocate, a path that does not lead to the "classroom to prison pipeline".

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