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Thursday, August 26th, 2010

Special school offers a second chance

By Janie Southard
ST. MARYS - Some kids think they've probably used up all the real opportunities they'll ever get, but not necessarily. The Opportunity for Youth (OFY) program in Auglaize County is all about giving kids another chance, according to program director Chuck Rowen.
Rowen, a former St. Marys law enforcement officer, former teacher, high school principal and superintendent with New Knoxville school district for 27 years, is now director of this program at the Auglaize County Educational Service Center.
Speaking at the St. Marys Rotary Club's weekly luncheon, Rowen gave an overview of the four arms operating within OFY: Alternative School, Opportunity School, a truancy program and the Day Treatment Program.
"We had incredible success last year at Alternative School with 305 kids passing through," Rowen said. "This is for kids on a short-term, in-school suspension. They're working on assignments and they're monitored."
At first the program was for grades 7-12; it is now for grades 5-12. The big value to school districts is that alternative school offers an immediate response to discipline problems.
"A kid may get a three-day suspension and, back when I was in New Knoxville, the student could have to spend those days in the principal's office hearing conversations he shouldn't be hearing. Now we get him immediately and he's isolated from his home school. And he's under constant supervision," he said. "This is a great tool for school districts' discipline policies."
Opportunity School is actually the last opportunity for a lot of kids who have been expelled from their home districts or are on the verge of dropping out for various reasons, such as being pregnant. Some come from juvenile court and the West Central Juvenile Detention Center in Troy. They often have a past and they are definitely at risk, Rowen said.
"It's a lot harder to find the good points and we approach them differently. They've been through a lot and they want fairness, but it's paradoxical," he said providing an example.
The louder the student talks, the softer the school staffer speaks. The kids argue but the staffer must remain calm and cool.
Rowen recalled a former teacher at the police academy.
"He told me 'if you're not afraid, you're a fool, and if you show you're afraid, you're a fool,' " he said. "But, you know, it's not unusual for any of us to get a text message in the evening from those kids asking what to do about their baby's rash."
Opportunity School also offers value-added classes and speakers on such things as shaken baby syndrome, nutrition, financial responsibility, etc. - things they may be hearing for the first time.
Many of these kids don't think they have any opportunity left, but some are finding a pathway. Last year the school started with seven kids, and by the end of the year, there were 44 kids. And they had to learn to get along because they worked out of three classrooms with one restroom.
"Of the 44, we had 21 graduate (from high school). And some of them now have jobs and some are even in a community college," he said.
Rowen cited Auglaize County Juvenile Court Judge Mark Spees' tough love approach to juvenile offenders.
"Spees holds kids to probation until they graduate from high school or until they reach the maximum of their probation. A couple years ago he put eight kids in jail and required them to walk (escorted by sheriff's deputies) across the lawn to the Opportunity School next door. They didn't like it, but they graduated," he said.
The truancy program is off to a flying start this year with school just begun this week. Already Rowen has a list a kids to find.
"It may be their family house was foreclosed or for some other reason these kids are living somewhere else and no one notified the school district. I'll be busy with that this afternoon," he said.
The Day Treatment Program houses students who are ordered there by a judge. The kids often come out of the Troy detention facility and are likely not ready for public school, he said. They report to school in uniform, attend classes with shared teachers and then go home and come back the next day.
"I'm a real kid advocate and I have a passion to do the best for kids," Rowen said. "I want them to succeed."
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