Shirley Ferguson walks around her classroom, closely watching her math students plot points on paper to form a circle. The eight students are learning how to calculate the circle's circumference, radius and diameter.
"You're doing a great job," Ms. Ferguson says to one student.
Except for the unusually small number of students, Ms. Ferguson's class looks like any other math class in any other Anne Arundel County school. But the class and the school are unusual.
Ms. Ferguson is a teacher at Adams Park Learning Center, an alternative school for middle school students who have been suspended from other county schools. All of the students were suspended for disruptive behavior and are one step away from expulsion. If they pass muster at the center, they may eventually earn readmittance to regular schools.
The recent shooting of a school police officer at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School has prompted the Baltimore school system to consider creating a similar school for unruly students. A 14-year-old boy with a history of disruptive behavior has been charged in the shooting. The boy had been suspended from several other schools before he was transferred to Roland Park, considered one of the city's best schools.
The Adams Park center was created in 1968 for disruptive junior high students. About 3,600 students have attended the school, and while roughly 40 percent of them earned high school diplomas, the school still is considered a success.
"The problem with [the statistics] is they don't take into consideration that our kids are usually in the eighth or ninth grade," says James Lyons, the school's principal. "They still have a lot more time in school when they leave us.
"There's also nothing in the numbers about the kids who are going out and getting jobs. That's successful. The program is successful because it takes them and gets them through middle school without being expelled. Even if they drop out later, they still have the option of going back because at least they weren't expelled," says Mr. Lyons.
Other school systems also see the learning center as successful. Four school systems have modeled their programs after it. They are in Wilmington, Del.; Newport News, Va.; Dade County, Fla.; and Fort Wayne, Ind.
Arthur Pierce, the Baltimore school system's director for adult and alternative education, says the city has looked at the center and similar programs around the country. Mr. Pierce says Baltimore probably will meld parts of several programs to create its own program.
At least one part of the learning center's program may be included in Baltimore's program -- the tightly structured daily regimen set for the students, Mr. Pierce says.
Even before the beginning of classes at 8:50 a.m., the learning center's 60 students follow a very regimented structure. The students, an even mix of blacks and whites, come from all over the county. They ride to school on buses that generally carry no more than 10 students. The extra space prevents territorial squabbles, Mr. Lyons says.
Only one bus at a time unloads its students, and only when the vice principal stands at the bus door checking off students' names as they enter the school.
Students report to a desk in the lobby and order their lunch. After placing their orders, students go directly to class. Teachers stand in front of the classroom doors when classes change to make sure students do not linger in the hall. Students are allotted only 30 seconds to travel between classrooms. To ensure that they move as quickly as possible, all textbooks and materials are kept in classrooms and the students are not allowed to use the school's lockers.
The school day is broken into six 45-minute periods. Students are taught from the county's standard curriculum in math, language arts, science, social studies, art and physical education. In addition, students must take classes entitled "Social Issues of the 20th Century" and "Personal Management."
Students are allowed 10 minutes for lunch. There is no waiting in a cafeteria line. Students are handed a lunch as they enter one of the school's two cafeterias. They sit at a table with no more than five students and a teacher. Other teachers also are present in the room during the lunch break.
The school day at the center is shorter than that of other schools in the county, but there is no wasted time.
Reality therapy is an important part of the school's philosophy, says Huntley Cross, special assistant to the superintendent, and the former principal of the center.
"Reality therapy says we are each responsible for what we do," Mr. Cross says. "The problem is that kids don't take responsibility for themselves. Here, we provide them with a positive environment. We tell them, 'You have to meet our standards. I will help you realize those standards.' "
Students are suspended occasionally but never for more than a day or two, Mr. Lyons says. After all, he adds, the goal is to keep the students in school.
About 15 of the 150 students who pass through the center during the year are expelled. But students can appeal their expulsions and often are allowed to return.
"No one wants to see a 14-year-old out on the streets," Mr. Lyons says.
The cost at the center is about $2,500 per student, almost double the amount spent educating other students in the county. But Mr. Cross says it's money well spent.
"I heard the other day that it cost about $25,000 to $30,000 to keep someone in prison," Mr. Cross says. "If we intervene earlier, at whatever the cost now, it's better than what we'll have to pay later. It's not a comparable thing. The program does a tremendous service all the way around."