Providing hope

Fairfield Daily Republic ©

Every now and then, 11-year-old Delcarlo McCullough will slip from his school desk and walk outside. He seldom asks for permission nor does he care what his teacher at Keystone School in Vallejo says.

"You need to ask for a break. You can't just walk out," says Theresa Kirchnerin, his teacher. But McCullough ignores her.

McCullough, a boy with a broken smile and chipped tooth, is one of 36 students at Keystone Vallejo who is receiving an education in a nonpublic school. That is, a school that is privately operated but publicly funded and specializes in providing educational services for students with needs so exceptional, such as emotional disruptive behavior, they cannot be met in a public school setting.

According to the State Department of Education, California has certified 369 nonpublic schools and about 15,000 California students are educated each year in nonpublic schools located both in California and in other states.

Solano County has seven of these schools, including two Keystone Schools in Vallejo and Elmira. Keystone is a division of Universal Health Services.

In this place, students receive frequent breaks during instruction time, change seats at a moment's notice and, if necessary, will do their work outside. It is a facility where rules are broken, outbursts occur and teachers learn the value of being flexible.

"Sometimes the kids fail in (district) programs and are sent here, where we're a more restrictive environment," says Tasha Dean, principal of Keystone School in Vallejo. The school teaches grades kindergarten through 12. "And our goal is to get them out of here as quickly as possible."

The school

Keystone's goal for the students is to place them back into the public school system by having a staff of at least one teacher and two teacher assistants in each classroom, which could ranges between eight and 12 students.

Students stay at the school an average of six months, Dean says. However, some students have attended since its opening July 2005.

The way out of this program for a student is to demonstrate safe, respectful and responsible behavior toward others and themselves for a consecutive 40 days. Only then will the staff of 15 begin to consider a transition to public school.

"If they reach that merit level of 40 days, we take some of the reinforcement away," Dean says. "It's doing good and feeling good that will want them to do good. That's what we're trying to achieve."

So far, the school has transitioned five students back to the public school system.

The school implements a positive behavior management system and is incentive-based. For example, students get Keystone Bucks every five or 10 minutes for following school rules and staying on task. They then have the option, a few times a day, to purchase snacks, such as candy, soft drinks, juices, pocket lunches and fruits. Two bags of chips can be purchased for 100 Keystone Bucks.

Given new state laws mandate healthy foods in public schools by eliminating soft drinks and increasing access to healthier foods, students obtaining snacks made of sugar and artificial coloring could raise a few eyebrows.

According to Betti Colucci, regional vice president of UHS/Keystone Schools, however, the school uses a behavior management plan, which means giving some students candy in return for positive behavior.

"We do preference assessments on each child and it is determined from that what will be their primary reinforcer. And for some, it's candy," she says, then adds, "We do try to minimize the amount of candy they have. They can't have candy at every option."

The cost

According to the California Department of Education, the cost per student, per day at Keystone School in Vallejo for the fiscal year 2004-05 was between $150 and $173. Presuming a school year has 180 days at a rate of $150 per day at Keystone, the total cost for a student can be $27,000 per year.

The average cost per pupil in 2004-05 for average daily attendance (general education) in Solano County, however, is $6,490. All is paid by tax dollars.

Why such a huge difference?

"A student that goes to Keystone has a teacher, two teacher assistants and depending on the needs, a counseling component, day treatment, mental health aides, therapists, crisis intervention and transportation," says Sam Neustadt, assistant superintendent for Special Education Local Planning Area.

"It's not just one teacher in front of 30 kids," he continues. "For Keystone students, it's a compliment of professionals serving a child's individual needs. It's a function of special education."

Likewise, a typical cost for students enrolled in the public system severe emotional disturbance program for the year 2004-05 is $14,063, based in a room of 10-12 students.

The cost of Keystone, Neustadt explains, is within the normal range of nonpublic schools in Solano County.

The dean

Dean is seldom found behind her desk.

She frequently walks the outdoor halls with a walkie-talkie in her hand, talks to students or parents or, by request from the students, teaches a class.

"If we're not successful, these kids will end up dead. And that's motivation for me, that's very valuable," she says. "I also have a gift to work with them. I'm patient. Seeing some change and some growth in the students is better than none at all."

She wants them to be contributing members of society rather than promote children who will one day be destructive members.

"That's our mission and we like what we do," she says. "We know it's important and makes a difference."