BENNINGTON -- As the age children exhibit severe emotional and behavioral problems becomes younger and younger, Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union is changing how it delivers intervention services for them.
When school begins this fall, SVSU will separate high school students from the PLUS Program on Congress Street, which has previously been the supervisory union’s most restrictive placement for children of all grades.
For more than a decade the PLUS Program has supported about 25 students each year with some of the greatest needs. The program provides academic instruction, counseling, social skills, behavioral intervention, and parent and community support with the intention of getting the children to return to their home school.
"The students are the most challenging students, that are not able to be in a typical school setting. We work very hard and usually it takes about a year for our students to get to a point where we begin transitioning (the students) back to their home schools," Special Education Director Kathy Buck said at an SVSU meeting earlier this month.
Recently, children as young as 6 years old have been referred to the program, which has caused concern among staff and parents alike and triggered the change.
"For the last two years they have been getting younger and younger. For instance, at the end of last year we had our first kindergarten child referred," Buck said. "Lo and behold, after that kindergartner, here comes another kindergartner and then a first grader, and we started to see this very young population come to a surface in our schools."
Although there are four classrooms for the program, all of the students from kindergarten up to high school interact regularly including at lunch time.
With those concerns in mind, the supervisory union plans to pull the high school students out of the program and begin an extension of PLUS in the building behind the high school where other alternative education programs are already housed.
"Although they will still be considered the PLUS Program, they will be located on the high school campus in a more secure area. They won’t have access to the whole building, they won’t have access to many things without a lot of supervision," Buck said.
The program at the high school will require one new teacher, which the supervisory union will be able to hire from the money it saves by pulling three high school students into the program who have previously been tuitioned to attend Manchester Village School, which offers a similar program. Sending the three students to Manchester cost SVSU $120,000 last year.
In addition to a curriculum designed by high school staff, which will include many of the same interventions students would already receive, the new high school program will also attempt to create a greater sense of community.
"At this point what we’re talking about is an academic day for half of the day and then a community (and) employment experience for the other part of the day," Buck said.
Buck said students and their parents have already expressed support of the idea that high school administrators have been working on for the past year.
"These children want to come back to Mount Anthony and this would be a way for them to do that," Buck said.
Buck said the reason the three students were placed in Manchester is because they were previously unsuccessful in the PLUS Program, although with a new format at the high school Buck believes that may change.
In addition to putting age concerns at ease, housing the older students at the high school makes sense because there is a licensed social worker already at the high school as well as a contracted clinical psychologist who will assist in the program. The program will also include involvement from United Counseling Services and the Department of Corrections because Buck said some of the students are on probation.
The PLUS Program on Congress Street should also benefit from the change.
"On Congress Street, our efforts are going to be targeted more to younger children, hopefully with more intense interventions and the ability to help them gain skills to go back into their schools sooner. The younger we get them the sooner we think we’re going to be able to be successful and bring them back to their schools."
School Board member Leon Johnson praised the idea and agreed the younger students need more individualized attention when they show signs that they cannot succeed in the classroom.
"I agree 100 percent that the program needs to be shifted down ... we need to get our hands on them as early as possible," Johnson said.
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