Crosswell Park community briefed on Sumter's alternative academy poised to move in

Program to focus more on social/emotional aspects for children, district says, and be a community resource

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After a meeting last week, a local neighborhood association is more comfortable with Sumter School District's vision and plan to place its rebranded alternative program in its community.

Jim McKinney, president of the Crosswell Neighborhood Association, spoke Monday after district administration detailed to six community members and their city councilman one week ago its vision to move the former Brewington Academy into the district's previous Early Head Start program facility in Crosswell Park.

Brewington, located on the former campus of Mayewood Middle School, 4300 E. Brewington Road, housed the district's alternative placement program from 2011 through the end of last school year in the spring. However, with Mayewood's closure in spring 2018 due to low enrollment and to save money in a time of financial difficulties, a need arose to find a suitable new home for Brewington to achieve the full cost savings of closing the school.

With a changeover from Interim Superintendent Debbie Hamm to current Superintendent Penelope Martin-Knox, timelines for a move slowed, but in the spring, administration pegged the now-unoccupied Crosswell Park Early Childhood Center, 475 Crosswell Drive, as a top choice.

The Early Head Start program, which was previously housed at the center, closed in spring 2019 as part of the district's financial recovery plan.

Then COVID-19 hit in mid-March, and any project planning got pushed to the side amid the pandemic and transitioning all students to distance learning, according to administration. With its hands full with the pandemic, district administration couldn't reach out to the Crosswell Park community on its project planning.

Then, at an August board meeting, administration shared with the district's board of trustees its vision for moving the alternative program to Crosswell. Like other alternative schools, middle and high school-age students with disciplinary issues attend the program, typically in 45-day intervals, before returning to their home-based school.

McKinney, president of the neighborhood association and a longtime community resident, said an Aug. 15 article in The Sumter Item on the board meeting confirmed his understanding about the district's vision for the alternative program.

After some weeks back and forth with district administration, last week's meeting occurred on Sept. 30 in the Early Childhood Center's multipurpose room. Community members had concerns with safety procedures, they said.

THE MEETING

McKinney, five other community members and Ward 4 City Councilman Steve Corley all attended the district's presentation led by Martin-Knox and a team of district administrators.

The superintendent opened the meeting by saying the district did not try to act in secrecy or deceitfully but got sidetracked by pandemic response in the spring and summer for its 16,000-plus students.

Similar to its August virtual board meeting, administrators then detailed their mission and vision for the new school, which will include a name change. The program's new proposed name by district administration is Sumter Academy for Support and Interventions, but any official name change - from Brewington Academy - must receive board approval. (The full board's next meeting is Monday, and the agenda has not yet been publicized.)

The name change represents in part a mindset shift for the alternative program, according to various administrators. District staff want the program to address more of the social/emotional aspects of the children it serves and root causes for their challenges, according to James Boone, the academy's new principal this year. Previously, Brewington lacked an element of the restorative piece for children, staff said, and administrators want the academy to have more of a structured approach in that area. A social worker, psychologist and a school resource officer will be full-time at the new academy, administrators said.

Recently, the district received state approval to move forward with some building modifications to the early childhood center to transform it into the academy. Administration said it hopes to have the facility ready for students in January.

Since most middle- and high-schoolers are still in virtual learning in the district, an alternative-learning program facility is not currently necessary. Administration has also said when all students begin in-person instruction, it will be at their home-based schools because no one has been in a school since mid-March.

FACILITY ALSO A COMMUNITY RESOURCE

To market the academy to the Crosswell Park community, administration has proposed some after-hours programs that it detailed, including GED classes, a food pantry and a future site for community meetings. Other alternatives, including a clothing shelter for children, were also discussed at the meeting.

"Sometimes, our children don't come to school because they don't have the appropriate attire," Martin-Knox said. "I don't want that to be a deterrent for our children. I believe when we invest, the return is sometimes much greater than we can even see."

Administration noted that in recent years, 25% of alternative program students at Brewington came from the Crosswell Park community.

District staff also addressed safety procedures at the academy, which will include no adjoining doors to Crosswell Drive Elementary School and that all academy students will be bused into the school area.

McKinney said Monday he felt the meeting went well and that he is impressed with the superintendent's passion for children.

"Now, one person can't make changes," he said, "but if you build a team that thinks like you, changes can be made."

He said he is more at ease with the future academy.

"We are more comfortable with things now," he said. "I am just hoping and praying that they will do what they say they are going to do."