Christina Matias believes her son can do better in school.
Eleven-year-old Leonard, who will be a sixth-grader this fall, makes A's and B's and excels at sports, including football and basketball. But he fidgets, he's easily frustrated, and "sometimes his temper just gets the best of him," Matias says.
Last year, Leonard's angry outbursts got him sent to the principal's office regularly. He switched elementary schools midway through his fifth-grade year. He got in trouble at his new school and switched again. And then again.
"Last year was the deal-breaker. I was like, 'We need to do something,'" Matias said.
"He has such a big, sweet, kind heart. His teachers tell me that all the time. But he also requires a lot of one-on-one attention, and he gets frustrated when things aren't going his way."
This fall, Leonard will attend Bryant Opportunity Academy, a new school for young students struggling with behavior problems.
Teachers and maintenance crews are at work readying the school, near Ninth and West, which closed in 2012. When it reopens in August with about 100 students in kindergarten through sixth grade, it will be the only school of its kind in Kansas and one of few in the country designed for elementary-aged students with discipline issues.
Some prospective Bryant students qualify for special-education resources, having been diagnosed with a learning disability or emotional or behavioral disorder. But most do not.
"We're kind of on the cutting edge, because most districts don't have an elementary of this type," said Terrell Davis, assistant superintendent of support services for the Wichita district. "So we're kind of blazing the trail. We have larger districts calling us and asking if they can come and see, and we'll be open to that."
Alternative schools aren't new in Wichita. The district once operated three alternative "metro" high schools and an alternative middle school for students who had not been successful in a traditional school setting. The environments were generally smaller and more flexible than traditional schools and featured more one-on-one instruction.
But budget cuts over the past several years forced the closure of all but one — Wichita Alternative High School in northeast Wichita.
Now the district is launching a similar school for younger students, prompted in part by data that shows a significant increase in discipline incidents at Wichita elementary schools.
Claudio Flores, Bryant's new principal, began his career as a youth care worker at Youthville, a nonprofit child welfare agency, providing supervision and guidance to behaviorally challenged children and teens. He subsequently worked as an assistant principal at Truesdell Middle School and Northwest High.
Bryant's new dean of students is Lisa Burgess, a former third-grade teacher at Gardiner Elementary in south Wichita. Her new position is similar to an assistant principal but meant to reflect "a focus that's more student-driven rather than administratively driven," said Davis, the assistant superintendent.
The school's overall approach is simple, Flores says: There's no such thing as a "bad kid," only ones who may not have learned the rules yet.
"I want them to know, 'Hey, just because somebody labels you and somebody tells you you're this type of kid, I don't want that to become your reality,'" he said. "You still have the opportunity to be who you want to be. The more people they hear that from, the more chances they'll have to be successful."
Instead of traditional desks, most classrooms at Bryant will feature flexible seating — bouncy chairs, high-top tables, wedge pillows and gamer-style "surf desks" meant to encourage rather than stifle activity.
The gymnasium will feature the district's first Lu Interactive Playground, a projector system that combines physical education with 3D video gaming, complete with synchronized lighting and sound effects.
Another crucial difference won't be as easy to spot: Bryant teachers won't send children to the principal's office.
Instead, the school plans to use an "opt-in" method of classroom management, Davis said. If a student causes a distraction, the teacher will use an iPad app to notify a building administrator or counselor, who will report to the room to address the behavior. That could mean a conversation with the student in the classroom or a trip to one of the school's "de-escalation rooms" to address it.
"The whole philosophy behind it is the kid stays in (the classroom) and doesn't lose instructional time," Davis said. "There's no embarrassment, there's no pink slip, no one loses. It's all about win-win. It's about getting the kid regulated so the kid can continue learning."
That appeals to Matias. She recalls being labeled a "problem student" in traditional elementary and middle schools before attending the former Alcott Academy, an alternative middle school, where teachers took a different approach. She later attended Metro-Meridian Alternative High School.
"I was a fighter and I had issues with my temper, too, but they turned around my life," Matias said. "When I look at my son, I see a little of that in him."
After the district announced Bryant Opportunity Academy this spring, some critics worried that the school would become a warehouse for problem children, a place where other elementary schools will offload students they don't want to deal with.
That won't be the case, says Flores.
"We're going to say, 'Have you really tried everything you can with this kid at your school?' Because we don't want to be an easy out for administrators to say, 'Hey, this kid can go, because we feel like we can't deal with it,'" the principal said.
"This is the crown jewel academy," Davis added. "Are our kids going to have some unique backgrounds? Absolutely. I can't wait until our kids start telling stories of where they came from and the experiences they've had in the past. And we'll look at that kid and say, 'I can't believe you have A's right now, given all you've dealt with.'"
Bryant Opportunity Academy also will house a new intake center for students moving to the district through foster care or judicial placements — typically more than 80 a year. They'll report to Bryant and attend class in one of three "transitional rooms" while social workers, psychologists and others determine whether they're ready for a comprehensive school setting.
Some students may be assigned to Bryant from other schools through individualized education plans or a disciplinary hearing process. If parents balk at the placement, "that's where we have to problem-solve," Davis said.
"We'll have to sit down as a team with the parent and say, 'You know what, in the best interest of your kid, here's the best environment,'" he said. "The parent ultimately has the final say.
"But what we're seeing a lot in the meetings so far is a parent may have been apprehensive about their kid leaving a comprehensive school, but when they hear about the supports at Bryant, they say, 'You know what? Sign my kid up, and I'll send my younger kid as well.'"