MERCER COUNTY Officials work on plan for new charter school

The school will have a strong emphasis on family involvement in dealing with each pupil's problems.
MERCER, Pa. -- A new charter school serving pupils in grades two through seven who can't function in the classroom because of behavioral or emotional problems could be in operation by fall 2003.
The Advanced Charter Enterprise School is being put together by Mercer County public school superintendents and the Mercer County Behavioral Health Commission, a private, nonprofit corporation contracted by the county to provide mental health services.
Much of the plan is still in the design stage, but the new school's mission would be to assist children with various attention and behavior disorders that limit their ability to perform in the traditional classroom.
ACES will provide a behavioral health, managed-care educational program.
It's an idea that's been kicked around for about three years, said Dr. Larry Connelly, superintendent of the Mercer Area School District.
Pupils with attention deficit disorder and other problems have no place to go, particularly those in the lower grades, he said.
The Keystone Charter School in West Salem Township does have educational programs for pupils with behavioral problems in grades six through 12 but has a waiting list of 10-12 pupils for grades six through eight, said Mike Gentile, Keystone's principal.
Focus: The clientele ACES will serve is somewhat different, he said, noting that Keystone deals primarily with behavior modification, while ACES will focus more on mental health issues.
The county's superintendents decided there was a problem that needed to be addressed, and all 12 public school districts have committed to the ACES idea, said David Shaffer, superintendent of the Jamestown Area School District.
The school districts asked the Behavioral Health Commission to get involved because of its role in mental health issues in Mercer County and a successful track record of working with the schools in other programs, said Dana Frankenburg, the commission's chief executive officer.
Just who will run the school and where it will be hasn't been finalized, but Frankenburg said it will probably be in the Mercer area and operate as its own entity.
School officials have estimated there may be as many as 100 pupils from across the county in the targeted age group that could benefit from this school, said Oliver Rodax, superintendent of the Commodore Perry School District.
Family involvement: In addition to the traditional classroom education, ACES will have a very strong mental health and therapeutic component that, among other things, will place strong emphasis on the pupils' families, engaging them in helping their children to resolve their problems and get back into the mainstream classroom, Shaffer said.
Family involvement could include building family groups that would meet daily and even examining a pupil's home environment, added Joseph Montone, chief of clinical programs at the Behavioral Health Commission.
The idea would be to treat the family as a whole, and that's unique, he said, because the program would deal not only with school but also what changes need to be made in the home.
Attendance wouldn't be mandatory. Pupils wouldn't be assigned to the charter school, but its services would be offered as an alternative for children who are unable to perform in the regular classroom, Montone said.
Families are often ready for the same type of support that school administrators are seeking in those cases and are also looking for options that will benefit their children, Shaffer said.
Preliminary results of a countywide survey showed 200 responses that were overwhelmingly supportive of the concept, Frankenburg said.
Costs for the school: Costs haven't been worked out yet, but Connelly said it isn't uncommon to have to spend $20,000 to $25,000 a year to place a pupil in a program like this.
The superintendents believe ACES will be able to do an excellent job at a lower cost.
Funds would come from the state in the form of pupil attendance reimbursements and state mental health allocations. A variety of grants may also be available, Frankenburg said.
The state has provided a $25,000 planning grant to develop the concept but, under state law, the charter school proponents will have to ask local school districts for permission to set up the operation.
Frankenburg said that shouldn't be a problem as several have already offered to be sponsoring districts for the program. Not all 12 would have to approve the school, he said.

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