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ATLANTIC CITY — City school officials are proceeding with plans to open their own alternative high school this year after pulling out of the county system last spring due to concerns about student success.

At its meeting last month, the Atlantic City Board of Education approved a contract with Camelot Education Resources for an alternative education program from Aug. 19, 2020, through June 30, 2023, with certain contingencies.

The cost of the contract will be between $1.7 million and $2.4 million depending on the facility where the school will be housed and based on having 90 students. The cost would increase as the number of students increases.

Camelot runs alternative high school programs in Millville and Vineland.

Last spring, Atlantic City, the Greater Egg Harbor Regional High School District (which operates three area high schools) and Pleasantville all decided to pull students from the county alternative school program run by the vocational school district.

There were roughly 85 students enrolled in the Atlantic County Alternative High School during the 2019-20 school year.

The Alternative High School, which operated for 30 years, was for students who experienced attendance, behavior or achievement problems in traditional educational settings.

It was funded through tuition from a student’s sending district.

Greater Egg Harbor Regional Superintendent John Keenan was unavailable for comment on where students in his district would attend school this year. Pleasantville Superintendent Natakie Chestnut-Lee said her district plans to partner with Atlantic City on its new program.

Atlantic City Superitendent Barry Caldwell said the new program’s name is still being determined, but it would not hearken to the district’s former alternative program, Viking Academy, which came under scrutiny due to the cost of the program at $45,000 per student.

Viking Academy closed in 2014 after operating for 12 years.

The location for the school has also not been finalized, but Caldwell said it would be within a 20-mile radius of the city.

Camelot Deputy Superintendent Milt Alexander, Regional Director Matt Kass and Ray Strickland, the executive director for the new Atlantic County program, said they are in the planning stages and hope to be open sometime in the late fall or early winter.

Alexander said Camelot refers to its students as “deserving students” instead of “at-risk” because they deserve the help the program can give them.

Camelot’s programs in Vineland (Cunningham Academy) and Millville (Thunderbolt Academy) serve 140 and 90 students, respectively. The Atlantic City program could serve 90 in its first year, with 50 spots reserved for students from the district, 20 from Pleasantville and an additional 20 spots for other area schools that may need a location for students. The program will be open to middle and high school students.

“We’re in the process of agreements. Our initial plan was not to really start the program in full force until around November. It may get pushed a little further than November due to COVID,” said Atlantic City Assistant Superintendent Sherry Yahn.

For now, those students who would be in the alternative program are in remote learning like the rest of the district.

The cost to Atlantic City would be comparable to what the district was paying the county, $1.2 million for about 65 students in 2019.

Atlantic City School District officials said previously they wanted to leave the county’s alternative high school program because they felt students weren’t getting the best outcomes, with some being sent back to the district due to misbehavior.

The district was forced to educate some of those students with home instruction, at an added cost to the district.

“What we looked at several years ago was a comprehensive approach to improve the atmosphere at Atlantic City High School, but also deliver quality education to all students,” Caldwell said Friday. “What we found was the alternative setting in the county did not fit the need of our deserving student.”

Caldwell said Atlantic City’s position as a casino resort with high rates of poverty among its year-round residents puts its students in a vulnerable position, citing research published by the Atlantic City Executive Council, which oversees the city government’s transition back from state control.

“For those students to focus on just education is difficult,” he said.

Alexander said Camelot’s priorities for students are social and emotional learning and academics.

“We are developing great relationships from the start,” he said. “We focus on self-management, responsible decision-making (and) relationship-building with our students.”

Students are evaluated on a quarterly basis to see whether they are ready to transition back into the general education program.

“It’s a collective effort between student, family, team and sending school so we’ll do what’s best for the student,” Strickland said.

Alexander said students in the Camelot program are greeted upon arrival by staff to assess how each student’s day is going, and those who do not show up regularly receive house calls. He said there is also a student government initiative and group counseling.

“It’s understanding Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. A student is likely not ready for math class or school in general if they didn’t eat last night or if their safety needs are not being met. We go through the entire progression and understand the situation as a whole,” Strickland said. “It’s our job to find out what that is.”

Contact: 609-272-7251

CLowe@pressofac.com

Twitter @clairelowe

Staff Writer

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.

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