AMIKids loses funds to continue

Ascension Parish has lost one of its alternative education programs.

AMIKids Donaldsonville will not reopen next week after the Thanksgiving holiday, the program’s director, Rhiannon Triagle, said Wednesday.

The program offered a nontraditional educational setting for students who had been expelled from school or were at risk of juvenile delinquency, while providing them with a personal growth model that featured an alternative education, treatment, counseling and behavior modification.

AMIkids Inc., based in Tampa, Fla., according to its website, “is a nationally recognized nonprofit organization providing our communities’ kids an opportunity to transform into responsible young adults.”

All of Louisiana’s AMIKids programs lost their funding from the state’s Office of Juvenile Justice, Triagle said, and program officials worked hard to secure other funding.

“It was a very difficult decision,” said Assumption Parish Sheriff Mike Waguespack, the chairman of the program’s board. “What’s frustrating is that this AMI has been really a huge success with turning some of these troubled kids around.”

Program officials approached each of the school districts the program served in order to secure a contract. While the program was able to continue serving at-risk students in Ascension Parish, Triagle said, officials were unable to reach a contract with Assumption or St. James parishes.

Therefore, the program was serving only seven students this year while having a capacity to handle between 30 and 40, she said.

“Financially, it was still such a shortfall on what we needed to fund the program,” Triagle said. “We had requested some additional assistance from the state. None of that came through. There was just a funding shortage, and we can’t sustain the program.”

“It’s disappointing that the state hasn’t been able to step up and help us,” Waguespack said. “My theory and philosophy is it’s better to spend the money on the front end on these kids and have the chance to turn them around. It’s more costly when they become adults and waste away in the system.”

Ascension Parish Schools Superintendent Patrice Pujol said the seven students will transition to the district’s alternative program, The APPLe Digital Academy, where they will begin an educational program and get an assessment of their social needs.

“Ultimately, we would like to be able to funnel them back into the regular school system,” Pujol said.

Waguespack said he and others spent several months trying to find ways to fill the funding gap, but Donaldsonville simply lacks the corporate wealth to raise enough private donations to keep the program going.

The Donaldsonville program became the fourth of eight AMIKids day schools in the state to close in the last three months, Triagle said. Schools in Alexandria, Raceland and Tallulah shut down earlier this year.

The four remaining day schools are located in Baton Rouge, Harvey, Lake Charles and Bossier City. An AMI residential program operates in Branch in Acadia Parish. AMI programs serve about 105,000 students in nine states, according to information supplied by the state Department of Education, offering them a smaller educational environment and one-on-one attention.

Triagle said that all of the remaining programs in the state are in or near the larger cities and have more funding options, so they should be able to remain open.

The Baton Rouge program received a $100,000 contract last month from the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to serve up to 60 students at a time if expelled from any of the seven public schools in Baton Rouge in the Recovery School District.

O.B. Stander, the president and CEO of AMI, said the programs that have been shuttered have been facing deficits for the past two years that couldn’t be overcome.

“The disappointing thing is when you’re having to close a school that’s really done a remarkable job in helping kids transform their lives,” Stander said. “Not to be able to give the kids that opportunity is disheartening.”

Stander, an Opelousas native who graduated from LSU, said the AMI method has “proven to be effective at reducing crime and improving academic level,” but due to the significant deficits facing the programs in Louisiana, some of them had to be closed. Although he said he was hopeful to one day reopen the shuttered programs, Stander said his immediate goal is to keep the remaining programs active.

“We have to come up with a long-term funding solution that works to eliminate that deficit,” Stander said.