Special Subcommittee on Residential Academies for At-Risk Students in Virginia

September 15, 1999, Richmond


HJR 538 would have established a joint subcommittee to study the efficacy and appropriateness of creating residential academies for at-risk students in Virginia. The joint subcommittee was to examine, among other things, residential academies and programs in other states, current initiatives addressing the educational needs of at-risk students in Virginia, and residential educational programs such as summer Governor's Schools. The House Committee on Rules declined to pass the resolution, which was referred by letter to the House Committee on Education for further study. In response to this letter, Delegate J. Paul Councill, co-chair of the House Committee on Education, appointed a five-member special subcommittee to examine the issues raised by HJR 538.

Residential Education Initiatives

In April 1998, the Minnesota legislature authorized the creation of residential academies for at-risk students, supported by a $12 million appropriation. Pursuant to an uncodified act, the commissioner of children, families, and learning may award grants to public entities or "a collaborative of public and private organizations" for capital and "start-up" costs for residential academies for students in grades four through 12. In making grants, the commissioner is to consider the academy's location, its governance, the quality of its educational program, collaboration with various organizations, family and community involvement, and the availability of year-round educational and social services as well as "after-school enrichment." The commissioner is to evaluate the residential academies initiative and report his findings to the education committees by February 15, 2001.

The act specifies that eligible students must "demonstrate an interest in learning and a potential for academic achievement" and may (i) perform or be at risk of performing below the "academic performance level for students of the same age or ability" or (ii) have "experienced homelessness or an unstable home environment." While enrollment in a Minnesota residential academy is voluntary, students are recommended for admission by a parent or guardian, the student's county of residence (no agency is specified), a health care provider, or the judicial system. Funding for educational and social services flows from the student's resident school division to the residential academy. The educational program at a Minnesota residential academy must be designed to increase student academic achievement and attendance, enable students to meet graduation requirements, and improve the transition of secondary school students to higher education or the workforce.

In October 1998, then-Governor Arne Carlson announced the selection of the first residential academy, a partnership between a school division and a number of public and private educational and community organizations. The initial academy was awarded a grant of $3.5 million. Two months later, the Governor announced the selection of two more academy proposals, creating residential academies in inner-city Minneapolis and in a suburban county.

In its sixth year of operation, the Paterson Residential Education Program in New Jersey is described as a "rigorous four-week residential academic program" that serves 60 high school students from the school district's four public high schools. Located at Montclair State University, PREP provides a summer program for students chosen through an application and interview process.

Located in Granby, Massachusetts, the Boston University Residential Charter School is a public institution providing 365-day coeducational services for at-risk students. Established through a charter granted by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and founded by Boston University, the school is the nation's first residential charter school and is governed by a five-member board of trustees. The school targets students in grades seven through 12 who are "at-risk of not receiving services that adequately address their educational, living, behavioral, and emotional needs, but can benefit from these services once provided; at-risk of further problems, difficulties, and failure if not provided with services that address their educational, living, behavioral, and emotional needs; [and] capable of academic, behavioral, and personal success and higher functioning if provided with services that address their educational, living, behavioral, and emotional needs."

Per pupil funding from local school divisions, contracts with the Departments of Social Services and Youth Services, and other public and private funds support the school's operations. Class sizes may range from six to 12 students, and each student is assigned a licensed mental health professional. Situated in the St. Hyacinth College and Seminary, a former convent, the school opened in fall 1997. Initially, the school enrolled only day students, as it had not yet received a license to allow pupils to live on campus. In 1997-98, the school enrolled 20 students; 28 students were on the waiting list.

Establishing an Academy in Virginia

A residential academy in Virginia might be created as an alternative education opportunity. School boards may, consistent with certain due process proceedings and upon a finding that a school-age child has been expelled, violated school board policies, or been charged with any of several offenses, require the child to attend an alternative education program. This authority is also extended to the judiciary, as the juvenile and domestic relations district court of the jurisdiction in which a pupil resides, or any court in which charges are pending against a pupil, may require a pupil who has been charged with certain specified serious crimes to attend an alternative education program. These programs may include night school, adult education, or any other education program "designed to offer instruction to students for whom the regular program of instruction may be inappropriate."

Pursuant to the Standards of Quality, local school boards are to implement "educational alternatives for students whose needs are not met in programs prescribed elsewhere in these standards." The Board of Education is to establish a program of alternative education options for these students identified in the SOQ "who (i) have committed an offense in violation of school board policies . . . ; (ii) have been expelled from school attendance or have received one suspension for an entire semester, or have received two or more long-term suspensions within one school year; or (iii) have been released from a juvenile correctional center and have been identified by the Superintendent of the Department of Correctional Education and the relevant division superintendent as requiring an alternative education program."

The 1999 appropriation act allocated nearly $4.5 million in the second year of the biennium for regional alternative education programs to educate "certain expelled students and, as appropriate, students who have received suspensions from public schools and students returned to the community from the Department of Juvenile Justice." Staff for these regional programs are to include education, mental health, health, and law-enforcement personnel; the programs are to be designed to "ensure that students make the transition back into the ‘mainstream' within their local school division."

The Code of Virginia contemplates a range of additional alternatives to support at-risk pupils. Grants are available for pilot discretionary programs for elementary and middle school students who are disruptive and who do not qualify for these alternative education programs. The Academic Opportunities Pilot Program was created in 1999 to support no more than five pilot projects for "innovative options and creative instructional programs for the education of secondary school students with diverse educational needs within the same facility." Similarly, the Community-Based Intervention Program for Suspended and Expelled Students, also adopted by the 1999 Session, was designed to support five regional pilot projects "to provide interim instructional programs, intervention, and supervision for students in the public schools who have been suspended, excluded or expelled from school attendance."

Charter Schools
Virginia's charter schools statute, adopted in 1998, merits consideration when exploring the feasibility of creating a residential academy in the Commonwealth. Currently, the statute requires local school boards accepting applications for charter schools to give "priority" to those applications "designed to increase the educational opportunities of at-risk students" and provides that at least one-half of the charter schools in any school division be reserved for these applications. The statute defines the "at-risk pupil" as "a student having a physical, emotional, intellectual, socioeconomic, or cultural risk factor, as defined in Board of Education criteria, which research indicates may negatively influence educational success." In addition, the Code of Virginia already authorizes school boards to establish joint or regional schools and to jointly purchase and lease real and personal property for this purpose. In 1999, the General Assembly authorized the creation of charter schools as joint schools; the school boards operating the regional charter school must determine the school division to which the regional school will be attributed for purposes of the restrictions on the number of charter schools.
Governor's Schools
Summer residential Governor's Schools may provide useful models for the subcommittee's consideration as well. A Department of Education representative reported that Governor's Schools programs are free to Virginia public school students identified as gifted. Initiated in 1973, the statewide summer residential programs serve 650 high school junior and seniors, chosen from nominations made by school divisions and the private school network. Held on college campuses throughout the Commonwealth, the programs last four to six weeks. In summer 1999, six statewide residential Governor's Schools were offered.

1999 Summer Residential Governor's Schools
Program Location No. of Students
Humanities University of Richmond 200  
Visual and Performing Arts University of Richmond 200  
Math, Science and Technology Lynchburg 200  
Mentorship in Medicine VCU/MCV 30  
Engineering (NASA) Christopher Newport University 15  
Oceanography (VIMS) Christopher Newport University 10  

This past year, approximately 700 applications were received for 200 Visual and Performing Arts spaces, and 141 applicants sought the 30 mentorships in medicine. The Department of Education makes final selections based on applicant "scores" (reflecting test scores, extracurricular activities, teacher recommendations, and other factors), slots allocated per school division, and the rank assigned the applicant by the resident school division.

Summer programs are established through a request for proposals (RFP) process. Proposals reflect a five-year contract and must detail program activity costs, including room, board, insurance, curriculum and instruction; transportation; facilities security; and dormitory, dining, technology, and laboratory facilities. Pupil-teacher ratios in the summer residential programs range from 12:1 to 15:1. The Department of Education and the hosting institution share administration of the programs.

Programs are funded in the appropriation act, with additional funding and in-kind support from local school divisions. Participating localities contribute on the basis of the composite index of local ability-to-pay, but no local contribution exceeds 50 percent. School divisions must guarantee the local portion for all students nominated. Costs for a four-week program average $1,750 per student for 200 students and supporting faculty.

VSDB Schools
Also providing residential public education are the Virginia Schools for the Deaf and the Blind (VSDB). Located in Staunton and Hampton, the VSDB are controlled by the Board of Education. The Superintendent of Public Instruction directs the activities of these institutions, which are not considered school divisions. Education programs at these institutions must also be approved by the superintendent, who may consult with the Departments of the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing and Visually Handicapped.
Social Service Initiatives
Also warranting review in exploring the feasibility of establishing residential academies for at-risk pupils in Virginia is the potential coordination and involvement of a variety of social services initiatives. Illustrative of the interagency coordination required in administering a special residential academy is the education of disabled children residing in state institutions. Responsibility for this initiative falls under the aegis of the Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation, and Substance Abuse Services (DMHMRSAS) and the Department of Education. The work and mission of the Council on Coordinating Prevention may merit subcommittee review. Also of note is the Community Prevention Initiative Grants Program, to provide grants to local units of government for programs to prevent substance abuse, delinquency, dropping out of school, and related negative behaviors and conditions.

Enacted in 1992, the Comprehensive Services Act for At-Risk Youth and Families may also warrant consideration in evaluating the feasibility of establishing residential academies for at-risk youth. The act's stated purposes encompass early identification and intervention for "young children and their families who are at risk of developing emotional or behavioral problems, or both, due to environmental, physical or psychological stress" as well as public-private partnerships and the delivery of services that are "responsive to the unique and diverse strengths and needs of troubled youth and families."

Commonwealth Challenge
A total of 27 states have initiated the Commonwealth Challenge program, sponsored by the Virginia National Guard. In the Commonwealth, the challenge program was initially federally funded; however, state funding will increase in 5 percent increments from 25 percent to 40 percent by 2001. A five-month initiative located at Camp Pendleton, the Commonwealth Challenge serves approximately 150 student volunteers in a military-style program, followed by 12 months of mentoring. Two classes are offered each year for high school dropouts; the program does not target re-entry into secondary school, but instead is designed to help participants obtain a GED certificate. Approximately 74 percent of students will pass the GED while enrolled in the Commonwealth Challenge program. Students receive $5 per week while in the program; a $400 stipend, disbursed in increments following graduation, helps ensure enrollment in a GED program for those graduates who have not yet obtained the certificate.

Applicants must be drug-free and have no felony charges or convictions. Now in its eleventh class, the challenge has produced 740 graduates since its inception in 1994. The program's graduation rate is slightly over 70 percent. Over 80 percent of the participants are male, with enrollments primarily coming from the Tidewater area (70 percent). The challenge staff includes representatives from all five branches of the military. Student body and faculty reflect a similar racial and ethnic composition; whites and African-Americans nearly evenly share about 95 percent of student enrollments.

Future Meetings

The subcommittee expects to meet again this fall, and will likely examine issues such as the costs and benefits of creating a residential educational setting for at-risk students; appropriate admissions criteria; academy governance and operations; coordination between state and local educational and social services agencies; the potential application of existing mechanisms, such as charter schools or residential Governor's Schools, as residential academies; and revenue sources.

The Honorable Anne G. Rhodes, Chair
Legislative Services contact: Kathleen G. Harris