Project Change Recovery School Seeks Renewal of Contract
Charter school program to come before finance committee, school board this week.
With a newly-revised charter, plan of operation and budget, Project Change Recovery School is seeking approval to continue serving high school students battling drug and alcohol addiction.
The school’s charter contract with the School District of Waukesha expires this month and until a new or revised contract is approved by the Waukesha School Board, the fate of the small, specialized school is uncertain.
At last Tuesday night’s school board curriculum and instruction meeting, Jennifer Wimmer, executive director of special education for the school district, and a group of advocates updated the committee on their progress over the last month to ensure the school continues.
To answer concerns raised by the school board at a previous meeting, the school formed a governance board and laid out plans of operations, detailing enrollment goals, recruiting strategies and outlining a budget, an overview of which was given to the committee last week Tuesday night.
The committee did not take action on Project Change. After discussion, district administration and committee members determined that the school’s charter contract could be addressed at next week’s finance committee meeting with potential action at the school board meeting.
Project Change first opened in 2002 and typically serves a small number of students. At its highest enrollment, the school had seven students.
“One of the things we recognized was that it was a low-incidence, high-cost kind of program, that we didn’t have many students in it," Wimmer said. "So we needed to create a growth plan to fill those seven seats and then look at how we’re going to grow in the future so that the costs continue to be reduced over time."
This week, the school will graduate four students from the program, according to program coordinator and teacher Tracy Mitchell.
At its current location, the school has room for seven students. Students are enrolled in the school for varying lengths of time, depending on their individual needs, according until Mitchell. Some stay until graduation, some stay just a few months.
“Enrollment is fluid. Of course, we strive to have all the seats filled but sometimes kids enter treatment in the summer and they aren’t ready to enter Project Change until the end of September or October," Mitchell said. "So unfortunately, those seats are open."
A national study of recovery schools conducted in 2007 found that they are rarely at capacity, she told the committee.
An Increased Budget
The proposed 2012-2013 budget for the charter school is $106,810 and includes ongoing expenses such as rent, supplies, drug testing, fees and salary and benefits. New this year is a proposed $3,000 for marketing the school.
“It’s the best kept secret up until now. We spent a lot of time exploring avenues that would be cost effective and some that would cost,” said Bobbi Heighway, chairperson of the governance board.
The school’s budget this year was $87,480, according to the district. In 2010-2011, it was $97,630 and in 2009-2010 it was $122,500. In those two years, some expenses were paid in part by grant money that has since dried up, according to Wimmer.
For School Board Member Barbara Brzenk, it’s money well-spent.
“You cannot buy a kid’s life for $100,000," Brzenk said. "No amount of money in the world can buy a kid’s life. And you know it as well as I do that the suicide rate of kids who are AODA is quite high."
“It’s worth it to me personally,” she said.
School Board Member Joseph Como said that enrolling seven students in the school may not be enough to serve the need considering the size of the district.
“My first reaction is that seven seats isn’t enough,” he said, noting that half of district expulsions deal with substance abuse.
“I would rather we start small," he said. "Do it well and get certain building blocks in place. I just have a hard time saying seven is the maximum.”
Wimmer pointed out that currently, the program is bound by space constraints.
Important components of the new plan for the charter school include educating district staff about the charter school, how to access viable treatment for students struggling with alcohol and drug addiction, and how to align parents to those treatment resources for their children.
Outreach to Waukesha schools is important for the charter school since the district would be losing an estimated $8,500 for every non-district student who enrolls in the school, due to the cap on the amount of money the state reimburses the district for such students, according to Superintendent Todd Gray. The district cannot deny open enrollment requests unless the program is full, Gray said. This year, only one of the four students was a district resident.
“We want to be very transparent about those costs," Wimmer said. 'I’m confident with marketing and the team that’s committed, we’re going to fill seven seats and they will be students from Waukesha."
According to School District of Waukesha surveys cited in the report for the charter school, from 2008 to 2010, the percentage of 8th grade students in Waukesha schools who reported using alcohol in the previous 30 days nearly doubled, from 10.1 percent to 19.8 percent. The percentage of 8th graders who reported using marijuana in the previous 30 days also increased, from 4.8 to 5.3 percent.