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Tough Love for Tough Students

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By Connie Langland

Class over, 10 students line up single file in the 4th floor hallway, no talking, hands clasped behind their backs. They all appear well groomed in school uniforms --belts cinched, shirts tucked in, no flashy jewelry in sight, no caps. Their teacher is with them, and several other staffers stand nearby, watching for even minor misbehavior, as the youngsters head for their next class. It looks like boot camp and, in a way, it is -- the middle school version, where students do classwork but also get what amounts to basic training in self-control, social skills and appropriate behavior.

Stetson Signs.jpgAt John B. Stetson Charter School in the Fairhill section of Philadelphia, the school-within-a-school program called Success Academy is nearing the end of its first year. Over the course of the year, 86 students have been assigned to the program and about a quarter of them have returned to regular classrooms.

At Young Scholars Frederick Douglass Charter School, a K-8 school a few blocks west of Temple University, it is called Path Academy, handling about 70 3rd to 8th graders. That program is just a few months old.

In both schools, disruptive students who violate the rules are not sent home. They are sent to Success or Path.

 In both schools, this approach to dealing with the most disruptive students is proving successful--shrinking suspensions, dramatically reducing the number of serious incidents, and giving a boost to teachers and students alike. With distractions minimized, if not eliminated, teachers in the main school can focus on teaching. And whether they get reassigned to the program or not, students are beginning to understand that school is for learning, not acting out, fighting or sassing teachers.

Observers are impressed. "Our children are resilient. They are young enough--they can be retrained," said Ruth Birchett, acting chairman of Douglass' School Advisory Council. This is so, she said, even though the students in trouble "have acquired `social skills' that will help them fail rather than succeed in the larger society."

Retraining--or, resocializing--is exactly the aim of Success and Path. At Stetson, about one-third of the students in the Success program have returned to regular classrooms.

The academies are run by Success Schools, a for-profit company based in Yardley, Pa., that specializes in programs targeting underachieving, aggressive and otherwise troubled young people. Success has contracts with the charter groups ASPIRA Pennsylvania (Stetson) and Young Scholars (Douglass) at a cost of about $4,000 per student. It will run a similar program for ASPIRA when that group takes over Olney East and West High Schools in late summer and is in talks with other charter schools to open more academies.

Using Success, the schools are coming to terms with an unsettling conundrum: what to do with out-of-control students? No education takes place for the time they are not in school, and there is a real risk that they will get in even more trouble. Keep them in school, and they have the capacity not only to disrupt classrooms and hallways but to become studentThumbnail image for Students in Line.jpg leaders of the most destructive sort.

In Philadelphia's district run schools, most students who are suspended are sent home. ASPIRA n opted not to follow this practice when it took over operations at Stetson at the beginning of this school year,  even though the school clearly had a number of disruptive students. The state had rated the school "persistently dangerous" for four years beginning in 2006-07. But from last year to this year, violent incidents have plummeted--from about 100 serious incidents, 54 of them violent, in 2009-10 to just 10 serious incidents, 2 violent, this school year, according to Principal Renato Lajara.

Remarkably, because of the Success Academy operation,  just 4? students have been suspended this year, compared with about 500 the previous year. One student was expelled for drug offenses.

At Douglass, there were 38 serious incidents recorded in 2009-10, and 45 the previous year, making it among the most violent schools in the city. That number has plummeted, with just two incidents recorded from September through November, according to district data.

Douglass' new administration grappled to regain control of the school, but with limited success. Students still roamed the hallways and disrupted classes. In the first three months of school, there were 239 suspensions, up from 46 the previous year, in a student body of 650.

Khalil Austin, 15, an 8th grader, acknowledges that his antics contributed to the situation at Douglass. "I played too much, messed around too much," Austin said. Then, he heard "rumors" that a new program would open. Being reassigned to Path changed everything, he said.

"The staff up here really help you," said Austin, who is now on the honor roll and aspires to attend Princeton University. "I do all my work. I learned up here that you have to listen for your own good."

The young man is earnest and soft-spoken--hardly an out-of-control character--and Path staff would not disagree. Academy team leader Richard Gear said as many as half the 60 students now assigned to the academy don't so much have intractable behavioral issues as they have a need for the structure and discipline that are central to the academy's approach. "They thrive on it," he said.

Stetson Reprimand.jpgSuccess spokesmen dispute the "boot camp" characterization. They call it tough love.

"Our goal is to give students the skills they need to go back to the mainstream. But they have to know how to function there, how to do the right thing on their own," said Robert J. Lysek, chief operations officer of Success Schools.

To that end, students assigned to the Success or Path academies attend assemblies three times a day where teachers and staff give shout outs for good behavior and reminders about what not to do. On occasion, students are called on to do the same.

At a midday session at Douglass, teachers stepped forward to review issues behavior issues that had surfaced in morning classes and to offer lessons on such topics as integrity, taking responsibility, trust and dealing with parents. Students were seated but not slouching. There was no problem hearing the speakers; to a person, their voices were more serious than friendly, booming not faint, altogether no-nonsense.

Each speaker began the same way.

"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen."

"Good afternoon," the students answered.

Then the lesson. "Let's get our behavior uptight. You show that you're intelligent by the way you carry yourself. Let's end the day up strong," said one teacher.

Said another: "Sometimes you have to stand alone as a leader. We look for leaders to step up, stand up and do what's right."

The word redirection surfaced. It is a term of art in the program, describing any effort on the part of staff to change behavior. One teacher offered this reminder: "Remember, when we're redirecting, it's not personal. It's to help you out and there's no blowing it off."

The students get these pep talks three times a day.

Lysek said staff go over rules of the program with both students and parents at the outset. The bans are numerous and include contraband, gang insignias, cell phones, book bags, jewelry, even nail polish.  Other rules cover do's and don'ts in the classroom, hallways and cafeteria: No sleeping in class; no running, no table hopping at lunch, and saying thank you, to name a few.

The program's behavioral management approach, as described in the parent handbook, escalates from "friendly nonverbal" to "concern nonverbal"; "helpful verbal" to "concern verbal."  The program encourages students to use the same methods to reproach fellow students who might be disregarding rules.

The protocol used with a student who is out of control and possibly violent is to use a physical hold on the child in a standing, not prone, position, said Lysek. "It's very safe, very student friendly. Our staff is highly trained." Pennsylvania banned the use of prone restraints in juvenile programs in 2008 in response to reports of injuries and death by asphyxiation or cardiac arrest to youths immobilized face down.

The program also awards privileges to students who follow the rules and show initiative.

Some students assigned to the program have been identified as needing special education, which includes an Individualized Education Plan agreed to by parents and the school. Birchett, on the Douglass advisory board, said that when she first learned of the plan to open the Path Academy, she was concerned that students assigned to Path might be stigmatized, as is frequently the case with special-education students.

"Are you labeling these kids as `dumb' or `bad'? Can we be sure the school doesn't ostracize these children?" Birchett recalled asking. She was reassured to learn that the goal of the program is to deal with the antisocial or aggressive issues so that the child can rejoin peers in the main school.

Now she is a fan. Said Birchett: "We need to turn down the violence in our community and to deal with the contempt for authority and for teachers. If young people are given the structure in a separate milieu so that they can succeed, then that is a win-win for the school and the community."

Harris Lewin, director of graduate programs of education at La Salle University, is familiarStetson Girl.jpg with Success' approach. He said the school-within-a-school approach may be appropriate for youth who otherwise are "not getting the kind of attention that is required given their academic and social behaviors." The idea, he said, is to "not give up on them and to have persistence. ... Persistence and consistency--then you have a shot at success with these kids."

At Stetson, Lewin said, Lajara counts as a "principal who is in partnership and supportive" of the Success approach. At the start of the year, ASPIRA had all teachers trained in the Success approach to discipline, which has had the effect of keeping all the adults in the building on the same page in terms of infractions and discipline.

But, he said such efforts take time. The question is the capacity issue--whether it can be replicated on a large scale. "It's people who breathe life into it."

A few more comments:

Ishmael Montigo, 12, 6th grade, in the main program at Stetson: "It's fun to be safe in a better school."

Jasmine Williams, 14, 7th grade, in the Path Academy at Douglass for infractions including talking back to teachers: "I like it better here. Downstairs, I really didn't learn a lot because there were so many distractions in the classroom." Jasmine has witnessed Path staff restrain students three times this year, and she agrees with that approach. "If you continue doing what you're doing, you're being a threat."

The first few days in the program were "kind of a shock to me. I like to talk. ... But there's nothing I don't like here because I learn more."

Korrine Rodriguez, 14, 8th grade, in the Success Academy at Stetson, where she has attained the rank of Executive in the student awards program. "I need more people to be on top of me, to stop me when I'm about to say something. Last year, I got Ds and Fs ... this year, first honors. ... Honestly, I liked school last year because it was fun. No one was in class, everyone was being loud." She got in trouble for sassing teachers. Now, she aims to be a Marine. And her greatest fear? What will high school be like, without the support of the Success Academy?

Melonie Alvarado, 14, 8th grade, in the Success Academy at Stetson, also an Executive. Lysek said of Melonie, "She needed the structure, the discipline." The student agreed. "I do need people to tell me what to do. ... I had teachers scared of me. There were no rules, no consequences. This year I changed a lot. My attitude is better now." Now, she wants to be a nurse and hopes to attend Olney, where the Success Academy will be in place.

Adarius Huertes, 12, 6th grade, a slight boy who was quick to remind an older, bigger boy about keeping his hands behind his back while in line. "I used to get in fights, run the halls, disrespect staff." He endorsed the support he gets in the academy, especially how they have encouraged him to keep his grades up. "They think I'm doing a good job. And they want me to keep doing the right thing."

 Photos by Peter Tobia

See a photo essay on the Success Academy at Stetson Middle School. Once you hit the button in the center of the screen, hit autoplay at the bottom of the picture to make it play.

 








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