In past years the Madison School District might have expelled more than a dozen students in the first quarter.
This year the number of expulsions in the first quarter — zero.
The sharp reduction is the result of the district's new Phoenix program, an alternative to expulsion that district officials hope will allow students to focus on academics and improved behavior, rather than spend as long as a year-and-a-half falling behind their peers while disconnected from school services.
As of last week, 17 students who have committed expellable offenses were enrolled in the program. Rather than face an expulsion hearing, each has been given a second chance to continue learning in a classroom away from their peers. The district has expelled between 33 and 64 students a year in the last decade.
But some school board members are questioning whether Phoenix — which provides academic and life skills instruction in an alternative setting — is too lenient for certain behavior.
"I have some real concerns about the list being too narrow," board member Arlene Silveira said, referring to the "big four" offenses that disqualify a student from Phoenix — serious sexual assault, possession of a firearm, threatening to use a weapon, and attempting to detonate a bomb.
"I want to make sure we haven't defined this program so tightly, we're so concerned about numbers and appearances, that things aren't slipping through loopholes and cracks," Silveira said at a recent meeting. "There are things that shouldn't be happening in the school and we should show that we mean business."
Board members were particularly surprised to learn this month that no students had yet been expelled despite a spate of incidents, including strong-armed robberies at Jefferson and Sherman middle schools and a sexual assault at East High School.
District administrators have defended the program, saying they want to make sure even students who have committed serious conduct violations remain in a classroom.
"We had increasing concerns about kids being out of school," said Nancy Yoder, director of student services and alternative education for Madison schools. "The pendulum has really swung toward keeping kids in school and keeping kids in a teaching and learning model, as opposed to consequence and punishment model."
A Dec. 6 memo to the board said so far no students have been precluded from the program, though "one student who recently engaged in an expellable offense is most likely ineligible." District officials wouldn't elaborate on the incident for student privacy reasons.
The Phoenix program is based on the 15-year-old Chance for Change program in Green Bay, where Madison Superintendent Dan Nerad spent more than 30 years.
Tom Blankenheim, Green Bay's director of alternative programs, said before the program started the district expelled 35 students a year. Since the program began there have been three to four expulsions a year, with most students qualifying for the alternative program.
The district has found participants were more likely than those who were outright expelled "to stay connected to school rather dropping out and never being seen again," Blankenheim said, though no formal studies have been conducted.
Green Bay considers participation on a case-by-case basis and doesn't have a list of offenses that automatically bar students from the program. But several offenses that Blankenheim said would likely preclude participation, such as bringing a large knife to school or injuring another student in a fight, are not included on Madison's ban list.
Madison district administrators acknowledge they are still making changes to the program. Though the program was originally designed for 15 middle school and 15 high school students, program officials have asked to limit class sizes to 10 to keep them more manageable. They also want two more staff positions and money to transport students next year from their homes to the Doyle Administration Building where the program is housed, increasing the cost from $193,000 to more than $350,000 annually.