Experts discuss TAC's design
BY ANDREA EGER World Staff Writer
Thursday, March 27, 2008
3/27/08 at 6:22 AM
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leaders note differences
in the operation of the
Tulsa center and other
Alternative education experts who
have been following news reports
about the Tulsa Academic Center
have noted obvious differences between it and research-based strategies for success.
Two local juvenile justice officials
are questioning whether the school,
which is slated for an overhaul after
only seven months in operation, is
worth saving. And school board
members Matt Livingood and Brian
Hunt have raised concerns about
whether a referral to the school
should be used as punishment.
The leaders of the Oklahoma
Technical Assistance Center, which
serves alternative schools across
Oklahoma, said disciplinary or punitive schools have been found to have
far less success in reducing dropouts than alternative schools that offer students a less-traditional environment.
Denise Riley, assistant director of
the center and a board member of
the National Alternative Education
Association, said the differences between the two models are most evident in their goals.
"In one, you change the environment; in the other, you
try very hard to change the
child," Riley said.
That change in environment
is critical for reaching students who have not been successful in traditional schools,
It entails class sizes of no
more than 15 students so
teachers have a greater opportunity to connect with them;
long-term, not short-term
stays for students, and a special breed of teacher.
"You have to have teachers
who care and who are flexible,
yet have high standards," Riley said. "We always tell them
that the education (at an alternative school) shouldn't be
anything less than they would
get in a traditional school --
just something that's different."
Based in Cushing, OTAC
has one of the largest research
databases for alternative education in the country, she said.
Prevailing research also has
shown that alternative schools
are most successful when students choose to be there.
"If we're just providing a
house for them and they sit
there, there is no 'buy-in' be
tween the people there. It
shouldn't be a holding pen or a
place we send people," Riley
said. "In many cases, the very
reason kids are misbehaving
is that they're in a huge school
and they're not connected to
Riley said Oklahoma statutes include a recommended
model for alternative schools
that includes 17 research-based components.
She noted that Richard Palazzo, director of alternative
programs for Tulsa Public
Schools, helped create the
model in the 1990s.
"They have all that knowledge in Tulsa. He is an excellent resource," she said.
Kathy McKean, director of
OTAC, also has recommended the national award-winning programs at Tulsa's
Street School, and the Union
Alternative Center, as models.
Beth Wonson, another
board member for the national
association, said she heard
about the Tulsa school's problems while presenting at a
statewide conference this
week in Oklahoma City.
Wonson works for a nonprofit group in Covington, Ga.,
that operates a variety of alternative education programs, including one for students who
have been suspended.
She said she e-mailed Tulsa
Superintendent Michael Zolkoski to offer the benefit of
her experience with Project
Wonson said it appears that
the Tulsa program is lacking a
strong counseling component
to address students' social and
emotional growth and development, and sufficient support
for the faculty and staff.
She noted that Zolkoski introduced the Boystown model
for teaching youths social
skills. She said she helped a
school in New York improve
its delivery of that model.
"It is extremely effective
when implemented in small
group settings, but it appears
they're attempting to serve too
many kids in their environment," Wonson said of Tulsa
Public Schools. "It is also critical for people new to education and counseling to have a
lot of training, along with a lot
of follow-up professional development, in that model."
Tami Marler, director of
public information for TPS,
said Zolkoski referred all
questions about the Tulsa Academic Center's program design to Herb Thayer.
Thayer is the current director in Lafayette, La., of a boot
camp which Zolkoski founded
when he served as superintendent there in the 1990s.
Marler said a group of Tulsa
administrators were dispatched in 2007 to study the
Lafayette Alternative Program
for Students, or LAPS, and a
similar program that Zolkoski
founded in Brownsville, Texas.
"There were not intended to
be major differences. The
TAC model was supposed to
closely model the Lafayette
(one)," she said.
But the Lafayette program
that Thayer describes includes several differences
from the program that has materialized as the Tulsa Academic Center.
"(Zolkoski) sent a team
down here for two days,"
Thayer said upfront. "I don't
know how they implemented
it. I know the program we
have, and we are saving some
He declined to estimate his
program's success rate, but
said it only accepts a total of 90
middle and high school students at any given time, and
very few seniors.
LAPS boasts a student-teacher ratio of 15:1, and a
highly structured environment.
"There is not a lot of free
time. We work on self-esteem
and character education, and
physical training. The idea is if
they feel better and look better, physically, it helps their
self-esteem," Thayer said
LAPS also is open for 30
days during the summer to
give students additional opportunities to earn course
Comparatively, the Tulsa
Academic Center had a student enrollment that had
swelled to 300-400 by March
Teachers who spoke to the
Tulsa World on condition of
anonymity said they have as
many as 30 students attend
each of their class periods
with another 10 to 20 on the
rolls for each.
They said the sheer volume
and ever-changing student
body, as well as frequent violence, at the school have made
its character education and
physical training programs impossible.
Another notable difference
between the Tulsa and Lafayette programs is how students
end up there.
In Tulsa, students have no
due-process rights to appeal
their referral to the school for
But students who have gone
through the Lafayette school
district's disciplinary due process hearing and are expelled
can apply to LAPS as a last
chance, Thayer said.
"Some choose not to apply,"
he said. "I personally think if
they want to continue, then
they'll give it a shot. If you
force them to come there and
they can't possibly pass, what
incentive for them is there?"
Web site: www.tulsaworld.com/otac
Andrea Eger 581-8470
Alternative education model
1. Student-teacher ratios
conducive to effective learning
for at-risk students.
2. Appropriate structure,
curriculum, interaction, and reinforcement strategies for effective instruction.
3. Intake and screening process to determine student eligibility.
4. Appropriately certified
5. Faculty with experiences
or personal traits that qualify
them for successful work with
6. Collaboration with state
and local agencies.
7. Courses that meet state
curriculum standards, as well
as remedial courses.
8. Individualized instruction.
9. Clear and measurable
program goals and objectives.
10. Counseling and social
11. Graduation plan for
12. Life skills instruction.
13. Opportunities for arts
14. A proposed annual budget.
15. An evaluation component including an annual written self-evaluation.
16. Service to students in
grades 6 through 12 who are
most at risk of not completing
high school for reasons other
17. Opportunities for student participation in vocational
programs and extracurricular
Source: Oklahoma State Department of Education
2740 E. 41st St. North
Founded by Superintendent Michael Zolkoski in August, the school offers two
programs to which middle
and high school students
could be referred.
The Term Academic Program, which is being
phased out, allowed students to serve suspensions
of up to 30 days in the
school, while the most troubled students will continue
to be referred to the Performance Training Program, or
PTP. Students have to earn
points to be released from
PTP, which Zolkoski has
said can take anywhere
from two weeks to two years