Can this tiny Matthews school reduce classroom chaos for thousands of CMS students?

The Turning Point Academy building at the old Pawtuckett Elementary site, which was an alternative school for middle and high school students with discipline problems last year, will take only high schoolers in 2018-19.
The Turning Point Academy building at the old Pawtuckett Elementary site, which was an alternative school for middle and high school students with discipline problems last year, will take only high schoolers in 2018-19.

When school starts Aug. 27, 54 middle school students will report to a tiny new school in Matthews.

Last year they were sent to Turning Point Academy, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg alternative school for teens and adolescents with serious discipline infractions. They rode buses with older students, to a setting that some of their teachers described as dangerous and gang-ridden.

Now they’ll ride their own bus to a new branch of Turning Point on the grounds of Thompson, a child and family services provider in Matthews. They’ll take regular academic classes, combined with group and recreational therapy designed to unearth the root of their behavior and change it.

As new infractions occur, more middle school students will join them during the coming school year. And students who start the year there will return to regular schools as they complete their suspension time and meet their goals. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools doesn’t expect enrollment to top 100 at any given time — a small number in a district with almost 150,000 students.

But the kind of behaviors that get adolescents sent to Turning Point — frequent fighting, chronic classroom disruption, major drug violations and violent aggression, for example — can disrupt learning for all of their classmates. And students come to Turning Point from schools across Mecklenburg County.

“If you’re a parent, think about that student in your child’s class,” said Cotrane Penn, CMS executive director of student services. “Your child is doing well, but they come home every day talking about that child who did fill-in-the-blank. That student is having a significant impact on the school environment.”

In the past, Penn said, Turning Point provided a place to get middle school troublemakers out of regular classrooms. But the new setting is designed to give them insight and skills to reduce the chances that they’ll create the same problems when they return — and eliminate the fear that they’ll pick up worse behaviors from older students.

“While it’s not a lot of students, they are high-impact students,” Penn said. “It has a big ripple effect for the rest of the school when they return.”

Teachers voice fear

In 2016, a CMS alternative education task force raised concerns about mixing middle and high school students who had gotten 35- to 180-day suspensions. That meant children as young as 11 who had gotten into serious trouble for the first time could be sharing buses and a campus with 18-year-olds who may have committed crimes.

But that report landed during a CMS leadership transition and got sidelined. A group of teachers and family members brought those concerns to the forefront in March 2017, a few months after Superintendent Clayton Wilcox took office, when they spoke at a school board meeting to say that students and faculty were “traumatized and afraid.”

“Because all the disciplined students are sent to us, we are faced with gang fights, assaults on our staff and other students and threats to our staff and other students,” said Stephanie Collins-Frempong, a Turning Point Academy teacher and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators representative. “Our physical, mental and emotional health is under assault daily and we are at our wit’s end.”

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When Turning Point students heard about the comments, they held what Principal Valoria Burch called a peaceful protest, complaining that they’d been stereotyped as criminals and telling faculty that “we are not violent, we are not selling drugs,” Burch recalled.

They followed up by making a music video, with Burch’s OK and participation from many teachers, in which students rapped “they say they afraid of us,” opening with news clips about the teachers’ public comments. Burch said she saw it as a constructive, creative message from students and a way for faculty to “show them we do support them, we’re not afraid, we believe in our students and their talent.” But she later took it off YouTube after it was sent to news media, with anonymous complaints that the school was letting students belittle and intimidate the teachers who voiced fears.

“Our goal is to protect everyone,” Burch said in April.

A partner’s offer

Officials at Thompson, which provides residential psychiatric treatment for young people, had also read the 2016 task force report. And when they made changes to their campus, they asked if CMS would like to take over a classroom building Thompson had been using for residential students.

Thompson staff will provide therapy during the school day — and offer additional individual and family therapy to those who seek it — while CMS teachers handle the class work. As soon as they arrive, middle school students will get one-on-one orientation to size up their academic, behavioral and emotional needs.

Thompson sees this as a way to help lift the stigma from mental health and “figure out the ‘why’ behind behavior,” said spokeswoman Meghan Tocci. It comes as educators and advocates across the country emphasize the futility of expecting young people to excel at academics when they are traumatized, angry and perhaps mentally ill.

CMS embraced the opportunity. Penn said the younger students at the Matthews site won’t have to wear uniforms and won’t be routinely searched, as they were at the old site. The goal is to emphasize rehabilitation and skill-building, not punishment, she said.

What about high school?

High school students assigned to Turning Point will remain at the current location in the old Pawtuckett school in northwest Charlotte, which became host to the alternative program in 2016.

Burch, who has been Turning Point principal for 10 years in various sites, agreed with the teachers who spoke at the board meeting that the location is not ideal.

When CMS released a report on chronic absenteeism, 88 percent of Turning Point students were reported as having missed at least 10 percent of the school year. Burch blamed that partly on the location, which isn’t on a city bus line. Students are assigned a CMS bus to get to the alternative school, but that can take several days, she said. During that time, if parents can’t drive their kids to school they tend not to show up, Burch said.

Moving the younger students out will relieve crowding, and Penn said it also frees money to spend on more support services for the older students. With the combined middle-high school grades, Turning Point generally opened with 100 students and saw enrollment peak at 350, Burch said. That means unless more high school students are assigned this year (no significant enrollment growth is projected) it should drop to no more than 250.

Burch said last spring that she never believed the school was dangerous.

Teachers are supported by security guards and behavior modification technicians, who accompany students any time they move around campus. Students can’t bring cellphones or book bags, and they’re searched on arrival. They have to meet goals related to academics, attendance and attitude to earn the right to return to their previous school.

Because of the small size and structure, “I feel like we’re the safest school in the district,” Burch said.

In the aftermath of the flap over the teachers’ public comments, Burch also created a student advisory council. She said she would welcome any additional counseling and emotional support her teens could get.

“We can meet their academic needs all day long,” she said. “But these other needs, if you don’t have enough people to meet their needs it can impact the goals.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms