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Alternative school enrollment grew by 1,000 in 15 months

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A newly renovated disciplinary school, E.S. Miller, opens this month, as the number of students moved to alternative disciplinary schools in Philadelphia continues to soar.

More than 2,700 students now attend one of the five alternative discipline schools in Philadelphia, an increase of over 700 students since the start of the school year, recent data from the District's Office of Transition and Alternative Education show.

That represents an increase of almost 1000 in alternative school enrollment since the fall of 2002.

Not included in these figures are hundreds of students enrolled in "twilight" programs at neighborhood high schools who have come out of placements in the juvenile justice system and are not allowed by law to return to their regular school.

Responding to the surge in disciplinary placements, the District continues to expand capacity in its alternative education program, relying most heavily on contracts with Community Education Partners (CEP), a Tennessee company that specializes in educating juvenile ex-offenders and students with behavior problems and is strongly backed by Pennsylvania House Speaker John Perzel.

Miller, a school for students with serious disciplinary problems located in West Philadelphia, is slated to re-open in mid-February under CEP management. The building was open last school year as a District-run school, but has been undergoing renovations since September to create CEP's signature building design where four classrooms surround a common area to create small learning communities. The school will accommodate 200 students initially, with capacity expected to grow to 600 by September.

Asked if the rise in student expulsions to alternative schools is a step forward for the District, alternative education chief Gwen Morris emphasized the importance of preventing student violence through effective interventions.

She added, "We always have to bear in mind that we need the capacity to ensure that those youngsters who have created unsafe conditions are in an alternative setting."

But some are concerned about the upward trend in expelling students to alternative schools.

Wendell Harris, citywide Home and School Council vice president, says this boom is largely because of the District's zero tolerance discipline policy, which automatically expels any student involved in certain types of serious disciplinary incidents to an alternative school regardless of whether or not it is a first-time offense.

"It's just a blanket approach. It gets the good as well as the bad," said Harris, who advocates for more proactive disciplinary interventions that involve students, administrators, parents, and community members.

"We are deeply concerned about the increase in the number of children that are going to alternative schools," said Robert Listenbee, an attorney with the Philadelphia Defender Association's juvenile unit.

But during a January press conference CEO Vallas praised the policy, which began under his watch.

"Find me a District that has expelled more students to alternative placement. You will not find [one]," said Vallas, adding that the District is currently negotiating with alternative school providers to further increase capacity.

The alternative school numbers are growing despite the fact that almost 200 students-84 from middle schools and 98 from high schools-were "restored" to regular school placements when schools re-opened after winter break this school year. Students in alternative schools can be restored to regular school placements in September or January.

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