Faced with the prospect of taking on a class of struggling middle school students next year, NET Charter High School leaders this week heard directly from the Recovery School District officials who are asking them to give it a try.

On Tuesday, RSD leaders and NET Principal Elizabeth Ostberg described the experiment as a pilot program that would serve overage middle school students —  ages 14 years and older — who are identified as emotionally disturbed, learning disabled or require other special education services.

Qualifying students would also include those who are in danger of being expelled or who have already been expelled, those who are struggling academically, behaviorally or socially in traditional school.

The classroom would serve two groups of eight to 10 students at what is now a 140-student school, employing three new staff members. The likely staff would be one teacher, one social worker and a new assistant dean. The latter two positions, Ostberg says, could also work with the high school students.

Like NET’s current calendar, the middle schoolers would be on a year-round schedule, and math and reading would be the focus of their curriculum.

Plan could address citywide need

Ostberg expressed several reasons why she is in favor of the plan, including giving the school more time to work with likely future NET students in a therapeutic setting that addresses a citywide need.

“It’s very hard, for good reason, to expel special education students,” Ostberg said, speaking to the general issues involved in educating this population. “But it means they are getting suspended a lot and not getting the services they need. We want to try and find those kids and give them a different program.”

The exact process for how students will be selected for the NET program is still in the works, but Ostberg said the RSD is concerned about how students are admitted.

As it stands now, the student’s current school would send the candidate’s information to the RSD for review. The district would work in collaboration with NET and the student’s family to review the students’ history and make sure the student’s referring school did all the things necessary to try to meet their needs. The process would inform whether or not the student would be accepted at NET. In the case of denial, the student would remain at their current school.

Admission to the program would happen on a rolling basis. The median age of current NET high school students is 17 or 18 years old, according to Ostberg, and she said parents need to be made aware of, and be comfortable with that.

Board member Michelle Brown suggested adding an option that allows parents to directly seek the RSD’s assistance in placing their children in the program, instead of waiting for a school to do that for them.

“We crafted the project to protect parents, but we hadn’t thought of that. It’s something we can consider,” said Neeta Boddapati, RSD project manager in services and operations.

It’s unclear how long students could remain enrolled in the new alternative program. Right now, the proposal states that students will stay there “until finished with middle school.” But Ostberg warned there needs to be a clearer timeframe for when a student will exit the program.

“We don’t want to say that no matter what, you spend a year here and you’re out. There has to be structure so it’s not thought of as an automatic path to high school,” Ostberg said.

NET leaders skeptical of funding plan

Delano Ford, deputy superintendent of services and operations for RSD, said the district’s leading concerns are funding and hiring.

Under the current plan, Ostberg would be responsible for hiring. But board members sounded cautious about a funding plan RSD shared with them.

Ford explained that the money to bring on the three new staff members would come to the NET upfront, from donors that the district assured are in place.

“We do know for sure there are individuals who will fund this,” Ford said.

He said the funding requests should come from the NET, first to donors that are not guaranteed, and second to those identified as such.

No donors were named, and board members expressed skepticism with Ford’s confidence in being able to procure the funds.

The district’s plan for covering operational costs is to have the student’s sending school pay the NET a daily rate for each day before, or between the state’s October and February student counts, which determine per-pupil funding.

The RSD would be responsible for the billing of daily rate fees, and according to Ford, rate calculation is still in the works.

If approved by the NET board, the program would begin in the 2013-14 school year. But board members said, logistically speaking, it seemed unlikely that NET would be able to have a full classroom on the first day of school.

Ostberg said the program could begin with as few as eight students and Ford told the board to plan on having the startup funding, and staff in place regardless of how many students are initially enrolled.

“There will likely be some lag time for schools to see a student isn’t fitting at their school, it won’t happen on day one,” Ford said. “But school operators have an idea of students now, however they need to meet certain [intervention] requirements first.”

State rules present complications

Remaining open with no alternative assessment in place has weighed heavily on NET’s leadership and the board in recent months — and the possible addition of more struggling students had board members raising questions of sustainability.

“We’re already set up to fail under the current system, and now we would be doing it at two levels,” said board member Melissa Lessell. “How is the RSD going to work with us to ensure we don’t lose our charter?”

Board member Michelle Brown added that these risks are clearly visible at the middle school level, where test scores are virtually the only aspect measured under the state’s performance score calculations, which is used to grade schools. There’s also the possibility that the so-called “guaranteed funders” could always fall through, she said.

Ford responded by saying there are many supports in place for charter renewals.

“This is not something we will put in place thinking that you can’t be successful,” Ford said. “It’s just as important to partner with you, not just ask you to do it. We’re in this together.”

Board grants preliminary approval despite concerns

While the NET board of directors has not made a final decision on the program, they did vote on Tuesday to undertake preliminary steps.

They voted unanimously to draft a memorandum of understanding subject to further review, and to allow Ostberg to begin interviewing candidates for the three staff positions. She will also notify other schools of the program so that they can begin thinking of potential students right for the program.

The RSD and the board agreed to put their understanding of how the program would work in writing, and continue discussions, with a final vote likely in May.

Board president Kristina Kent said she wants to remain cautious and not rush any decisions. She said she wants to be fully prepared before approaching BESE for a charter amendment.