MARIETTA — An alternative school program serving both the Cobb and Marietta school districts is working to keep students in school, officials say, and both districts are looking to continue their contracts.
Ombudsman is a private company contracted by the school districts for middle and high school students who have either been expelled or suspended long term for behavior-related issues, said Greg Ewing, the chief accountability and research officer for Cobb schools. He said the typical stay in an Ombudsman school is for less than a semester.
“Unfortunately, we have some students in some schools who can’t meet the behavioral requirements of that building,” Ewing said. “So, if we suspend you from school for a certain number of days, there are times when we are required to place you in an alternative setting.”
Ewing noted Georgia has a compulsory attendance law requiring anyone younger than 16 to go to school.
“But our philosophy is, regardless of who you are, we want to offer you a second chance not only at an education but a second chance at becoming a good citizen,” Ewing said, adding a student’s placement in Ombudsman is usually a wake-up call of sorts for students and they usually take advantage of it.
Ombudsman has four satellite campuses and a digital academy for Cobb students, and one campus for Marietta, said Mac Petit, regional vice president for Ombudsman. He noted the campuses are strategically placed throughout the county as a convenience because students must provide their own transportation.
Cobb’s four satellite centers are in Marietta, Powder Springs, Mableton and east Cobb/south Marietta. Marietta City Schools’ Ombudsman site is on Roswell Road near Interstate 75.
Cobb has been contracting with Ombudsman for the past eight years and Ewing said it costs about $3 million per year, noting it fluctuates because the school district pays for student allotments and the contract must be approved by the board each year. It does not cost anything to the student to attend.
Marietta has been contracting Ombudsman for two years and the Marietta school board voted last month to renew the contract for the 2015-16 school year at a cost of $269,010.
“Using their service is a very cost-effective maneuver on our part because that will allow us to add additional teachers in schools where we might need teachers based on growth in a school or students who are having trouble reading or with math,” Ewing said. “We don’t have to take one complete facility, put a whole group of staff there not knowing how many children are coming on a weekly or monthly basis. So, for us, this is the best of both worlds.”
Ewing said there are a total of 154 students in the four locations, down from 166 last semester.
At Marietta’s location, there were 21 students last semester, compared to 46 the previous year.
Ewing said there is a fifth school — the Oakwood campus — which is a digital academy students choose to enroll in.
“It would be a mixture of online courses and face-to-face instruction,” Ewing said. “It’s a credit recovery type of program where they will be able to get back on the path to graduation and graduate with their peers while still receiving what we call the best high-quality instruction we can offer in the district.”
He said there are 180 students at Oakwood during the day and 37 at night, compared to 195 during the day and 67 at night last school year.
“Those are good numbers,” Ewing said. “For me, these 180 students in the day and 37 students at night, these could be potential drop-outs if we didn’t have an alternative program for them.”
Petit said about 90 percent of the about 500 students who have gone through Ombudsman in Cobb did not return to the alternative school and were able to remain at their home school for the remainder of their educational career.
“So, I think that speaks to the social-skill building component of the program,” Petit said. “We recognize that students sometimes struggle not just because of academics but they struggle to make real-life behavior choices that tend to sometimes get them in trouble. So, what we do is really focus on that social-emotional piece to really help them think about their decisions and how it impacts their education.”
Petit said one of the ways the school works on the social aspects of a student’s problems is by role-playing, and he noted smaller classes help the students focus.
Ewing said Cobb students have an 81 percent attendance rate at Ombudsman.
“When you look at that number — remember these are children who have been administratively placed there are — we still get 81 percent of them coming,” Ewing added.
For Marietta, there have been 70 students go through Ombudsman in the past year and a half and only three of them have returned to the program, according to a presentation made to the Marietta school board in April.