State and county school officials say the new program, called Comprehensive Learning Supports, focuses on directing resources to support students who are facing outside-the-classroom problems such as hunger, homelessness or family conflict.
"We've never had a systematic approach to address what, really, 40 percent of our students have to deal with on a daily basis," said Craig Pouncey, deputy state superintendent of education, at a press conference in Montgomery.
The new program is modeled on a project undertaken in Gainesville, Ga., where the school system created a district-wide position – director of learning supports – and set up school-wide teams to find and address areas where students needed more supports. That approach led to fewer disciplinary actions against students and a higher graduation rate in Gainesville’s schools, according to a report by the education publishing company Scholastic. Alabama's Department of Education officials hired Scholastic to develop the program for the state's schools.
Asked how it would work in a specific case, Linda Felton-Smith, director of the state Office of Learning Support, gave the example of a student who performs well when in school, but is often absent.
"With learning supports in place you would have a team who would sit down and talk about this individual," she said. "To go deeper and find out why this student is absent. To find out that this student is actually having to head the family because the parent may not be able to head the family."
It's not yet clear what changes the new program would bring to Calhoun County Schools. Calhoun County Deputy Superintendent Ed Roe, who was present at the Montgomery press conference, said he spent much of the rest of Friday working with state school officials to identify what resources the school has in place to help students who are struggling.
"We were actually writing these things down on sticky notes and moving them around on a board," he said. Roe said the sticky notes are the first step in developing a district-wide plan.
State officials said the 10 pilot districts were chosen in part because their administrators had shown interest in taking action to help "disconnected" students. Roe, the Calhoun County administrator, said the county was chosen largely because it recently applied for permission to change some graduation requirements under the school-flexibility provisions of the Alabama Accountability Act.
Roe said that effort brought to light some of things the county was doing to help students struggling with outside-of-school issues. He gave the example of two students who already had a child together. The school system allowed them to go to school on alternate days, so one could care for the baby while the other was in class.
"We want all students to graduate, and we don't want them to have to be in a classroom seven hours a day if that's not possible for them," Roe said.
State school officials said the new program would be expanded to all the state's school districts in the next three to five years.
Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.