Suspension Is A Time To Learn

When Trouble Strikes, Suspension Program
Keeps Kids Learning In Special Classroom.

By Deanna Dawson

Hampton Union, Tuesday, April 9, 2002

Above, Priscilla Weeks tutors students who are suspended from school in Hampton at Hobbs' House.
[Photo by Emily Reily]

For middle school and even some elementary students in the SAU 21, getting a suspension doesn’t means a day, week or more off from school to hang out at home.

The Alternative to Out of School Suspension (AOSS) program at Hampton’s Hobbs House has been an official part of the school’s handbooks and a School Board- accepted part of the consequences for breaking the rules since 1998.

The suspension program now runs every day during the week, and children placed on suspension are sent there as a mandatory alternative to staying home, which is a help to not only the parents, but the students and teachers as well. On average they see one to three students per week, though that number varies greatly. This year has seen its lowest numbers yet.

Stan Shupe, assistant principal of the middle school, says the program gives students an incentive to take control of their behavior and keep up on their school work instead of going home.

"It’s an essential component for what we do have here. I don’t like to send children home, there’s no benefit in that," he says. "It takes them out of the social environment of school, and they’re isolated. For middle school kids, that is a pretty big deal. But the child chooses his or her behavior and is given the opportunity to change that behavior by going to AOSS."

Program coordinator Nita Niemczyk says that when students are suspended and sent to Hobbs House, the school administration and student’s teachers will pull together to get the appropriate work to the kids for the days they are missing.

"This program is strictly academic, there are no extras," she says. The time students spend there is also longer than a regular school day to ensure time for studies and required community service carried out at the parish. Students sent to the program can expect to help out with jobs such as emptying garbage cans, doing dishes, sweeping, mopping, shelving food in the food pantry or helping a pantry patron carry food to their car. "The community service that they do gives them the opportunity to give something back and show them that they do have value," says Shupe.

Currently the program has eight tutors working with the students sent to them. Niemczyk says they prefer tutoring to be one on one, which she says keeps the clowning around down to a minimum and the focus high.

On a whole, they are really great kids that did something without thinking," she says. "These kinds of kids also thrive with one-on-one tutoring."

Though they usually only take in fifth- through eighth- grade students, sometimes younger students will be sent from the elementary school for special guidance.

"Some times we get a younger student who really needs a major time-out." says Niemczyk. "They are sent to Hobbs House for some down time and one on one. It is not considered a traditional suspension like it is for the older children."

The suspension program was the result of a grant written by The Hampton Community Issues Coalition in response to many concerned area business owners, according to Niemczyk.

"When the program was being put together, local businesses were complaining about suspended kids with no parental supervision that would hang around town and the beach during the day and sometimes cause damage," she says. "They asked the HCIC to do something to help with this problem

The Hampton program soon became a model for others in the state and was even in the 'running against other national 'programs for a Juvenile Justice Award.

"We were up against really large communities such as Miami, Los Angeles and Dallas," says Niemezyk. "I couldn’t believe it; little old Hampton against all those big cities."

The program, mainly aimed at middle school students but sometimes used as an alternative for elementary level children, started out on Saturdays for a few hours in the morning. Students on suspension were sent to the weekend program as part of their punishment. The Saturday program, which began in 1996, proved to be too difficult for families and tutors and was soon morphed into a weekday extended-day program meant to keep students up to par with the studies that were carrying on in their absence. That year the school issued 157 suspensions.

In 1997, when suspensions were down to 57. Hobbs House offered to take the program under its wings, giving it needed classroom space and helping hands.

The program is one of many community-based programs located at the Trinity Episcopal Church’s parish house, a place that over the years has served as not only a part of the church, but as a community center for Hampton and the surrounding towns.

Niemezyk emphasizes that even though the program is run out of a parish house, there is never anything about religion brought into the experience.

"The kids do see the aspect of reaching out to others in need and that is very important for them to learn," she says. "When they have contact with seniors or those less fortunate, they begin to realize that maybe they don’t have it so bad."

Niemczyk was involved in the program from the very beginning, becoming its coordinator, working with the schools to keep everything running smoothly. She not only acts as a liaison between teachers and tutors and organizes the tutors’ work schedule, she is a tutor herself and says she thoroughly enjoys that part of her job.

"I don’t think there is one student that has been through here that I haven’t liked. They’re all funny. smart and unique in their own way." she says. "I love working with kids. They’re the most important thing because they are our future."

Niemezyk has seen a very positive impact on the students in the SAU 21 schools since the beginning of the program, saying students are less likely to get in trouble, knowing that there are consequences.

"It sends a message and leaves a big impact on kids to be taken out of school," she says. "I think them coming here is making a big difference for kids. It’s good all the way around. The program has been very successful and we and the schools are very happy with it."