District ready to launch alternative school in Port

PW-S Board OKs lease for academy intended to curb special-ed costs, better serve students
By 
BILL SCHANEN IV
Ozaukee Press staff

The Port Washington-Saukville School District has found a home for an alternative school intended to control rising special education costs while better serving students with severe emotional and behavioral needs and relieving stress in traditional classrooms.

According to a two-year agreement approved by the School Board Monday, the district will lease 2,188 square feet of space in the Lake Hills West Medical Complex at 1317 W. Grand Ave. in Port Washington from Ansay Development Corp. for $1,750 per month, a rate below market value, administrators said.

The space, which has been named Breakwater Academy, has already been renovated to create four classrooms and a dedicated entrance for students and will open when classes begin on Sept. 4.

The school will have a capacity of 10 students, five high-schoolers who will attend classes there from 8 to 11 a.m. and five middle-schoolers who will be at the academy from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Currently three middle school students and four high school students are enrolled in the program, administrators said.

When students aren’t at the academy, they will spend either the first part of the morning or afternoon at their respective regular schools, where they will be taught by their teachers from Breakwater Academy.

The school will be staffed by a middle and high school teacher and a paraprofessional.

The alternative school is a relatively novel approach, especially for a school system the size of the Port-Saukville School District, to providing intense, individualized attention for students who cannot function in a regular classroom setting, administrators said.

“There’s nothing in the North Shore area that resembles this program,” Director of Special Services Duane Woelfel told the School Board.

Supt. Michael Weber said that with the exception of a few programs in larger school districts, there are no other alternative education programs in the state similar to the one being started by the Port-Saukville District.

“There are other alternative programs, but I’m not aware of any programs that have this sort of intensity except the one in Sheboygan,” he said.

While school officials are convinced that the alternative school will better serve students with severe emotional and behavioral needs while relieving stress on traditional classrooms where they would otherwise be educated, the Breakwater Academy will have to prove financially viable if it is to continue beyond its two-year trial period.

The board has authorized the district to spend $300,000 annually from its fund balance to support the program for two years. After that, the cost of Breakwater Academy would have to be included in the budget.

“There will be some choices to make at that time,” Director of Business Services Jim Froemming said. “Hopefully this program will eliminate some costs while taking pressure off our schools and helping these kids out so we don’t have to take something out of the budget to make room for this program.”

With escalating special education costs, there is pressure on school districts to find new, more efficient ways to educate students, officials said.

“With no new funding sources and revenue limits, we need to do things a bit more creatively and work to better meet the needs of our students,” Woelfel told the board in April when it approved the concept of an alternative school.

Last year, the district spent $258,537 to educate five students who were bused daily to and from facilities in Waukesha and West Allis because the district did not have the resources to address their special needs. 

“It’s not unusual for students placed outside the district to spend 90 minutes a day at a minimum on the road,” Woelfel said.

Officials hope that Breakwater Academy will eliminate the need to place at least some students at facilities outside the district.

“Some of the students in the alternative school would have been placed outside the district, and that is fairly costly,” Weber said. “And now we will have far more control over their education than if they were somewhere else.”

Although the cost of the alternative school is a key factor in deciding its future, its success will also hinge on its teachers. 

The district has hired Matt Esselmann as Breakwater Academy’s high school teacher and Harmony Ribbens as its middle school teacher.

Esselmann, a Port Washington High School graduate who lives in Saukville, has commuted for 17 years to Fond du Lac, where he has taught high school students at risk of not graduating.

“People have asked me over the years, ‘Matt, why don’t you live in Fond du Lac?’ or ‘Why don’t you find a job closer to home?’” Esselmann told the School Board Monday. “I didn’t want to give up my community to work up there, and I had a passion for what I did in Fond du Lac.

“Now I can combine my two passions.”

Ribbens, who worked in an alternative education program in the Sheboygan Area School District, said young people with severe emotional and behavioral needs require a different level of support than students receive in a traditional classroom.

“A lot of these kids have trust issues with adults because they have been let down by adults,” she said. “We are much more than teachers. We’re whatever our students need us to be.”

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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