COLUMBIA – The sign outside the building at 918 Bernadette Drive reads “Gifted Education.”
But the students inside are there for another reason.
Columbia Public Schools opened a suspension center Jan. 10 for students in grades 6-12. Rather than spending the time at home, students suspended for at least five days spend four hours per day at the new suspension center.
Students arrive at noon, check their coats, empty their pockets and turn off their cell phones.
On any given day there are 10-12 students present. They sit at desks the size of a small table, in a room about one-fourth the size of a basketball court.
They are instructed to bring no belongings — no purses, no book bags, not even basic school supplies.
They work for the first 75 minutes and break for a 15-minute lunch. Then, they work to complete additional assignments until they are released at 4 p.m.
The School Board approved the center at its Dec. 13 session to provide more structure so suspended students wouldn't fall behind, as well as meet state requirements for daily attendance.
Wanda Brown, the district's assistant superintendent for secondary education, said the center is intended "to hopefully give students more tools in their toolbox so they understand that fighting or doing drugs or some other things they get in there for are not really things they have to do."
Before the creation of the center, teachers prepared work to send home for suspended students. The director of the Alternate Continuing Education program, Joe Paulsen, said this was not always successful.
“I would say 90-95 percent of the work that the teachers gave to the kids on suspension was not getting done,” Paulsen said.
Last year, 543 students were suspended for at least five days, Brown said. So far during this school year, that number is about 210 students.
The high number of suspensions caused the district to face difficulties maintaining a high average daily attendance, which is tied to state funding.
According to the secondary suspension center budget, the new program will accrue $43,740 in state funds from January until June for daily attendance. It will still cost the district $10,159 for salaries and supplies.
“Even though these are very difficult financial times, we know that we need to support our kids,” Brown said.
In addition to Paulsen, a teacher and a behavioral counselor work with the students. Paulsen gets the assignments via e-mail from their regular teachers and distributes them.
Since it requires more work to compile and send material to the center, some teachers were hesitant at first, said Rock Bridge High School Principal Mark Maus.
However, Maus said feedback has been positive thus far.
“They were worried that if they did this work and sent it over, would it really come back?” Maus said. “But what we found is that the work is coming back.”
Brown said she hopes the center will lower the number of suspended students in the long run. Paulsen agreed.
“What I don’t want is kids to enjoy this so that they don’t want to go back to school,” he said. “So we are walking a tightrope of making it personal enough and caring so that we get the work done, but school is a better option for them.”
The center also works with students who receive long-term suspensions. There are currently three who must stay for the remainder of the semester.
Behavior that results in these longer suspensions includes multiple drug offenses and fighting incidents, Paulsen said.
For the long-term students, the center allows them to keep up on their work, complete classes, pick up credits and graduate.
So far, Paulsen said he's happy with the outcome.
“I don’t know if the word is blessed, but we’ve been very, very happy with the efforts and attitudes that the kids have,” he said.