Wichita school district has new plan for elementary students with behavior problems

Bryant Elementary School in west Wichita closed in 2012 as part of budget cuts and boundary changes. This fall it will reopen as a magnet elementary school for students with behavior issues.
Bryant Elementary School in west Wichita closed in 2012 as part of budget cuts and boundary changes. This fall it will reopen as a magnet elementary school for students with behavior issues. File photo

Starting this fall, the Wichita district will have a new option for young students struggling with behavior problems.

Bryant Opportunity Academy — located at the former Bryant Core Knowledge Magnet Elementary near Ninth and West — will serve about 100 kindergarten-through-sixth-grade students "who need a more highly structured, controlled environment," said Terrell Davis, executive director of public affairs and special projects for the Wichita district.

Students could attend Bryant for a few months or for years, depending on their needs, Davis said. They would be referred there by administrators at their assigned schools.

The school will have smaller classes and focus more attention on behavior and character development, Davis said. It also will employ additional counselors and social workers to serve students and their families.

"We've been looking at areas of need, both academically and in terms of behavior," Davis said. "And one of those areas is kids who just need additional structure and a hands-on approach.

"We're looking at school differently for a group of kids who ... may not have learned how to play school," he said. "This is a way to think outside the box to serve those kids."

The new academy, approved unanimously by school board members during a recent meeting, comes as the Wichita district is experiencing a substantial increase in behavior problems among its youngest students.

According to district data, the number of discipline incidents in elementary schools — including suspensions, detentions and trips to the principal's office — increased from 8,762 four years ago to nearly 13,500 last school year — an increase of more than 53 percent.

Districtwide over the same time period, the number of discipline incidents increased about 11 percent, while enrollment in Wichita schools fell about 1 percent.

Last spring, a local teachers union official said out-of-control kids were disrupting classrooms and driving some teachers out of the profession, and she urged district leaders to address the problem.

The new Bryant Opportunity Academy is part of Superintendent Alicia Thompson's multiyear plan to turn around discipline problems in elementary schools. Beginning last fall, all Wichita elementary school students also began getting daily lessons on social and emotional skills as part of Second Step, a character education curriculum.

Currently, elementary-age students with severe behavioral problems are referred to Greiffenstein Alternative School in south Wichita, which serves children with emotional disturbances or those who have been suspended or expelled from other schools. Most Greiffenstein students qualify for special education services.

Davis said the new Bryant Opportunity Academy will serve regular- and special-education students from across the district. Transportation will be provided. The school will operate on an early-start schedule — 7 a.m. to 2:10 p.m. — like other special schools and secondary magnets.

But it won't be just another alternative school, Davis said.

"We don't like to use the term 'at-risk' to describe our students. We use the term 'opportunity,'" he said. "We really believe every child has the opportunity for greatness and success. ... They may come from different places and have different needs, and we just need to meet them wherever they are."

Neil Guthrie, assistant superintendent for student support services, said Bryant Opportunity Academy will be a "middle ground" for students who may have behavior issues in regular classrooms but who don't require Greiffenstein's intensive special-education services.

For example, Guthrie said, many children arrive in Wichita schools from homes of poverty or traumatic situations, including substance abuse, violence, hunger or neglect. Some act out aggressively and require more focused lessons on self-control and anger management.

"Having the right students in the right places for the right reasons is really important," he said. "This really gives us the opportunity to have support in a smaller setting for students who need those caring adults to work with them."

Bryant Elementary, previously a core knowledge magnet, was one of five schools the district closed in 2012 as part of budget reductions and a reconfiguration of attendance boundaries. In 2013, when a fire damaged much of College Hill Elementary, the district temporarily relocated that school to the Bryant building in west Wichita.

A mission statement for Bryant Opportunity Academy says the new school will "give students the opportunity to learn and demonstrate responsible behavior, to express feelings and needs appropriately, to develop positive self-esteem, and to improve academic functioning."

District officials say they don't yet have an exact cost for the new academy, because they're still hiring teachers and other staff. It will be funded in part with additional money Wichita received as part of a new school finance formula, which targets more funding for at-risk students.

Claudio Flores, assistant principal at Northwest High School, will be principal at Bryant Opportunity Academy, Davis said.