For-Profit Schoolhouses Give Districts Dropout-Prevention Aid

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LIBERTYVILLE, ILL--For potential dropouts in three states, the work of a small profit-making company here is giving new meaning to an old educational idea: the one-room schoolhouse.

But with the exception of smallness--and an emphasis on the "three R's''--the schools operated by Ombudsman Educational Services Ltd. bear little outward resemblance to the traditional one-room schoolhouse. There are no blackboards, desks, or playgrounds at their suburban storefront locations.

Instead, the Ombudsman schools are filled with microcomputers and other teaching machines. Students enrolled there work quietly on their own, interacting with the teacher only for supervision or private tutoring. And, for most, the school day ends after only three hours.

The company's learning centers are offering underachieving students an alternative based on a philosophy completely foreign to the traditional school, say educators here. And, they add, it is working.

"Ombudsman has a marvelous record of success with young people who have not succeeded in the public schools,'' said Joe Nathan, an educational consultant and author familiar with the centers. They provide an example, he said, of the "sophisticated use of technology to help youngsters reach new skill levels and develop a personal attitude of 'Yes, I can learn; I can do it.'''

The company's founders add that the expansion of their business over the past 12 years to include a dozen locations in three states--Arizona, Illinois, and Minnesota--is proof that the educational model they developed in the early 1970's can be successfully replicated.

It is a model that uses instructional technology and small pupil-teacher ratios to offer students individualized instruction based on the mastery of basic skills.

Since Ombudsman opened its first school in suburban Chicago in 1975, nearly 85 percent of its students have either obtained a high-school diploma or re-enrolled in the public schools, its founders claim.

The company's clientele includes students of widely varying abilities and behavioral attributes, but almost all share a common characteristic: They were referred to the learning centers by local school districts as a last resort, to prevent them from dropping out altogether.

The relationship between Ombudsman and the school districts is a complex one. The students attend the learning centers in lieu of regular classes, but the school from which they were referred maintains some control over the programs they undertake. In most cases, the district pays tuition costs.

According to educators here, the Ombudsman model is believed to be unique among dropout-prevention and remedial-education programs in offering a full-time alternative to the regular classroom.

Its success, said Mr. Nathan, is particularly significant at a time when public-school officials are paying increased attention to the needs of "at risk'' students.

In addition, he pointed out, the Ombudsman centers represent a well-tested model of an educational-reform concept currently in vogue: the restructuring of schools to give teachers more autonomy and make teaching more attractive as a career choice.

The schools "recast the role of the teacher,'' he said. "The teacher becomes the manager of a variety of educational resources, rather than primarily an instructor.''

All teachers and aides at the schools are state-certified, although they generally make less than their counterparts in the public school system. But the student-teacher ratio averages between five and seven students to every teacher.

Students at the schools have a major voice in determining the order and pace at which they learn new concepts. But they are required to meet weekly "mastery'' goals in their individualized-education plans. The plans are based on an extensive pre-enrollment evaluation of their achievement in various competency areas.

Brendan Bosack, a 9-year-old student at Ombudsman's first elementary school, which opened here last September, says he likes the program "because it's fun and you can pick what you like to do.''

Four Rules

There are, however, four program rules that students must strictly obey. They include attending school for three hours a day, demonstrating reasonable academic progress, refraining from interfering with the learning activities of others, and refusing to use drugs or alcohol.

The discipline of the centers "teaches students a lot of responsibility,'' says James Boyle, who worked as a public-school teacher and administrator before helping found the first Ombudsman learning center.

"It's no longer just a matter of 'getting by' in school,'' he said. "They have to really demonstrate that they've learned the material.''

Performance is assessed on the basis of continuing progress, he said, and students must demonstrate 90 percent competency in each area before moving on to tackle new concepts.

"One of the most difficult jobs we face,'' said Mr. Boyle, "is convincing kids that they must achieve 90 percent scores on the tests in order to pass, when they have been used to passing with a 70 percent score.''

But none of the students in his schools can fail, Mr. Boyle asserted. "They may not learn, but they cannot fail.''

The schools have eliminated the concept of failure, he said, and work through positive reinforcement. They give no grades and assign no grade levels, only competency and mastery levels.

But when students refuse to live up to the attendance and progress terms of their contract, he said, the district is asked to take them back. Most are sufficiently motivated, he added, by the knowledge that "this is really their last shot.''

"If they can't make it here, they aren't going to make it.''

Success From Success

Clyde Slocum, superintendent of a Barrington, Ill., district that has been referring students to Ombudsman for seven years, said the option the learning centers provide "has worked out very nicely for us.''

His district refers students who are on the verge of dropping out but do not meet the criteria for other special services the district offers.

"These are kids who would fall through the cracks if there wasn't some other type of alternative for them,'' Mr. Slocum said.

Lori Sweeney, a former teacher who helped design the Ombudsman model and now serves as the company's vice president, credits the schools' success with at-risk students to the stress on positive reinforcement. She maintains that academic progress itself helps alter students' negative behaviors.

"In traditional special-education programs,'' she said, "they spend a lot of time with counseling and behavior modification, trying to change a child's behavior in order to get him involved in the learning process.''

"We find that when we get them involved in a learning process first,'' she said, "their behavior seems to change.''

A common problem for many of these students in their regular schools was truancy, Ms. Sweeney said. But most have managed to adhere to the three-hour regimen stipulated in their contract with Ombudsman.

Each of the alternative high-school programs runs three shifts a day, so that students can hold jobs in the morning or after school and still attend the centers on a daily basis. They also remain eligible to participate in extracurricular activities at their home schools, company officials said, although few choose to do so.

Not Public-School Competition

While students at the Ombudsman learning centers spend 80 percent to 90 percent of their time learning to master basic skills, company officials said, they are also required to achieve competency in six other areas: social studies, health, life management, basic science, "aesthetics and ethics,'' and career or college-admission preparation.

The 25 students enrolled at the company's new elementary school are required to attend for six hours a day, and must supplement their basic coursework with French, computer training, physical education, and a fine or performing art.

Ombudsman also offers after-school tutoring and summer-school courses, and serves as a consultant to school districts establishing alternative-school programs.

Mr. Boyle said his company does not intend to compete with the public schools. It does not, he said, recruit privately funded students, although some do attend.

"Ideally, we serve as an extension of the public achools, offering services that they cannot provide,'' he said. For a minority of students, he said, "the course and content model where teachers lecture to 25 kids just isn't going to do it.''

Public-school officials whose districts purchase services from Ombudsman agree that their own alternative programs have not proved as successful those of the learning centers.

"They have done an outstanding and cost-effective job'' with the approximately 30 students referred annually by the Peoria (Ariz.) Unified School District, said Raymond Kellis, district superintendent.

"They do not offer a universal answer to the problems besetting public education,'' he said, but "they do offer a no-nonsense, intensive approach to the serious problem of students who, for primarily social reasons, can't be accommodated in a regular school setting.''

Vol. 06, Issue 29

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