Woodall gets top rating from state as it helps kids with emotional, behavioral disorders

The program that educates Columbus area children who have severe emotional or behavioral disorders has received a perfect score on its state rating.

That’s an improvement of 11 percentage points from what it was rated during the 2016-17 school year.

The Woodall Program is among the 13 Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support programs out of 24 in the state to receive a 100% rating this year.

That rating is based on how well the programs follow the GNETS strategic plan, said Meghan Frick, communications director, Georgia Department of Education.

“It’s not a subjective process,” she said. “Districts have to show evidence the action items have been completed.”

The rating covers seven areas:

  • Leadership
  • Behavior support and therapeutic services
  • Instructional and academic support
  • Funding and fiscal management
  • Integration of services and capacity development for staff and parents
  • Accountability
  • Facilities management and safety.

LaChrista Thornton, director, Woodall Center, praised her “good team” for achieving the perfect rating.

“The staff here is very talented,” Thornton said.

With a budget this fiscal year of $840,378, Woodall serves children from Muscogee County and six surrounding counties: Chattahoochee, Clay, Quitman, Randolph, Stewart and Talbot.

The students assigned to Woodall have been diagnosed with a mental health disability, such as ADHD, bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder and personality disorder, Thornton said. A Woodall class can have a mix of diagnoses, she said.

Their disability prevents them from attending a traditional school until they learn how to adapt.

The Woodall Center had 24 students in grades K-8 in a six-classroom wing at Davis Elementary School as of Sept. 20. Five teachers and seven paraprofessionals, plus a behavior specialist and an instructional specialist work with the students there.

The program also had eight students in grades 9-12 at Carver High School with one teacher and three paraprofessionals, Thornton said.

A therapeutic team, comprising a clinical social worker and a behavior analyst, serves three students at their school, she said.

These students improved their behavior well enough to transition from Woodall to a regular or special-education classroom in a traditional school. Depending on each student’s need, the therapeutic team reduces their time at the student’s school from four hours per day to two hours per month, Thornton said.

And when she sees Woodall students return to their schools, Thornton said, “Oh, my goodness. … That completely warms me in all aspects. This is why I’m doing what I’m doing.”

Carlos Brown, in his fifth year at Woodall and seventh as an educator, is a former social worker with the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice.

He tells his middle-grades science students, “I want to steer you away from that (juvenile justice) system.”

Brown told the Ledger-Enquirer he “probably was one of those naysayers” about GNETS programs before starting to teach at Woodall.

“I know a lot of times (some people) say the instruction is not the same as general (education,)” he said. “That is totally not true.”

Brown said the Woodall program teaches the state’s mandated standards.

“We have certified teachers. It’s not like you have substitute teachers coming into the GNETS program and they’re just sitting with the kids and babysitting,” he said. That is totally opposite of what we do here.”

Just ask Emily Morse.

Her 10-year-old son, a fifth-grader, has autism. He has been attending Woodall since kindergarten.

“I think they’re fantastic,” Morse said of the staff. “My son … has gone from not being able to function in a classroom to now functioning in a classroom.”

Her son used to be restrained at Woodall more than 100 times per year and now, that number is less than 10, Morse said.

Woodall not only has taught her son social skills to modify his behavior, Morse said, but his teachers enabled him to overcome his learning disability to keep him on track academically.

“They push these kids,” she said. “… It’s not easy, and they don’t let them get away with anything.”

Morse calls the teamwork at Woodall “a village” in the way the staff not only educates her son but also helps her be a better parent for him.

“They teach me what I need to know,” she said.

Three years ago, Morse was concerned he son wouldn’t successfully adjust to the Woodall program being moved four miles away from Harrison Avenue to the Davis building on Shepherd Drive.

Less than two weeks before the end of the 2016 summer vacation, she heard that a state inspection had determined the building housing the Woodall Program was unsafe and dangerous.

Then, a week before classes were to resume, the Muscogee County School Board unanimously voted to move the program to Davis.

“This transition was going to be awful,” Morse recalled thinking.

Now, she looks back on that tough time as a prime example of how well the Woodall staff members serve children like her son.

“I think they handled it the very best way they possibly could,” Morse said. “… They did beautifully.”

By the Numbers

  • Four GNETS programs had ratings above 89% in 2016-17
  • Two programs (including Woodall) had a rating of 89% in 2016-17
  • 18 programs had ratings below 89 percent in 2016-17
  • Seven of the eight GNETS facilities that were declared unhealthy in 2016 received a 100% rating in 2019

Source: Georgia Department of Education

Ledger-Enquirer staff writer Mark Rice covers education and other issues related to youth. He also writes feature stories about any compelling topic. He has been reporting in Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley for more than a quarter-century. He welcomes your local news tips and questions.