District approves PALS program

By Dedra Cordle
Staff Writer

An alternative pathway for students facing suspension or expulsion will continue to be offered through a partnership between the South-Western City Schools District and the YMCA of Central Ohio.

At a recent meeting, the board of education unanimously approved the district’s continued participation in the Positive Alternative Learning for Students (PALS) program for the 2021/22 school year. They have agreed to pay the organization $125,000 for the one-year renewal.

According to deputy superintendent Dave Stewart, the district has been participating in the PALS program since it established a pilot program in 2000.

“It has been a real benefit for our district and a real positive pathway for our students in lieu of serving a suspension or being expelled,” he said.

The way the program works, he explained, is that a student is referred to the program through the school’s administration if they are facing disciplinary action for either fighting in school or excessive truancy. Should they be accepted into the program, they serve that suspension or expulsion period at the Vaughn E. Hairston YMCA where it is modeled to fit a typical school day.

“We have licensed educators and case workers available to attend to all of their needs,” said Don Heard, the executive director of the association’s juvenile justice program.

He said that while it is modeled to fit the typical school day – the program begins in the morning and ends in the afternoon; there is lunch and physical activities on the premises – the educators are able to provide more attention to the students and “delve into” the issue that brought them there.

“Because our classroom setting is so small, our educators and our case workers are really available to assist and support them in a way they might not be able to be assisted or supported in a classroom of 20 or 25 students,” Heard said.

In addition to serving in that capacity, the program also offers social and emotional support should the student be assessed for trauma.

“When a student walks into this program,” Heard said, “our case worker does an intake where we really get to know them as a person. If we feel, or if they say, they are going through some type of trauma in their lives we jump right on that and get them the help that they need.”

That program, called VOICES, was established through the Attorney General’s office: it has been implemented in part to a Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) grant.

Columbus City Schools has also partnered with the YMCA of Central Ohio to participate in the PALS program. Heard said that due to the coronavirus and their 100 percent remote learning environment, they decided to pause their participation in the program for the year.

Stewart said that with the hybrid model the South-Western district is learning under, their office referrals have declined. He said despite that fact, the district did not believe their participation in the program should be paused.

“We have to think ahead,” he said. “We have to have something in place in case we go to the 100 percent in-person model at some point and we have to plan for any other changes.”

In addition to the PALS program, the YMCA is also implementing another alternative learning pathway for students in grades 5-8 but this one is not solely for those facing disciplinary action.

According to Heard, they will soon be distributing flyers to the district’s intermediate and middle schools seeking participation in the Learning Extension Center. Heard said this program, which will also be held at the Vaughn E. Hairston YMCA in Urbancrest, offers students seeking additional study time in a more structured setting.

“Kids will come here to learn and get some work done with constant supervision,” he said.

Due to the pandemic, the LEC can only provide space for 12-15 students in order to physically distance. Like the PALS program, the LEC program will be held like a typical school day where it begins in the morning and ends in the afternoon.

Stewart said more information regarding the sign-up process will be available for parents shortly. He added that the district was excited to see the implementation of the learning extension center.

“I think it will be another terrific program ran by the great staff at the YMCA,” he said.

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