City officially adopts program for violent teens


October 19, 1992|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer

Last February, a 14-year-old boy shot a school police officer in the stomach with a .22-caliber pistol at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School.

The incident jolted school officials already groping for ways to deal with violent young teens, in a system that suspended or expelled nearly 2,300 students last year.

Patricia Matthews was ready with an answer.

For the past 12 years, she has headed Foundation for Youth Impact (FYI), a private, non-profit alternative school working with 11- to 17-year-olds who had dropped out, or been thrown out, of city schools.

The program is now the centerpiece of Baltimore's alternative middle school for disruptive youths, something demanded by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke after the shooting.

Every school day, nearly three dozen youngsters file through the doors of the program's temporary structure behind Lemmel Middle School in West Baltimore.

All have been suspended at least twice from regular middle schools around the city for violent, assaultive behavior. They are some of the estimated 200 students that school officials hold responsible for the system's most serious behavior problems.

This year, Ms. Matthews will offer up to 60 of those students a fresh start.

The corridors of her school are clean and quiet, kept neat and orderly by the students themselves.

The classes are small -- no more than 15 students in each -- with a teacher and assistant in each room ready to give the students one-on-one instruction.

Counselors, a social worker and a psychologist work with the students through the week.

And hovering over it all is Ms. Matthews, a grandmotherly dynamo of a woman who harbors no illusions about her students.

"Some of them are tough, some of them appear to be tough," she says. "We have one young man who took a gun to school. We have a number of young men who have been involved in serious fighting."

Such aggressive, street-wise behavior is the reason many were thrown out of traditional schools in the first place.

But that doesn't happen in the foundation's program. Students are expected to work out their problems with words, not fists and, for the most part, they do.

"There've been occasions where they've been up in each other's faces, pushing and shoving," she admits. "But . . . they have to resolve it. No suspensions, no expulsions. I'm not putting them ,, out."

That's a big change for Semeion Fedd, a 15-year-old from East Baltimore, who was thrown out of six middle schools before ending up at Ms. Matthews' school.

"It seems that I start out good, and I hook up with the wrong crowd, cutting class, fighting," Semeion says. "Wild stuff that I didn't think I would be doing.

"Now I'm here and settled . . . It's just peer pressure, but I learned to overcome that. I don't care what people think about me."

He praises Ms. Matthews' formula of small classes and one-on-one counseling.

But nearly as important is the respect and attention he gets from the staff -- something missing at other schools, he says.

"They try to separate us like we're bad or something," he says of other schools. "We're not bad -- some of us need individual attention."

The foundation's formula seems to work.

According to Ms. Matthews' informal survey, about 85 percent of middle school students who "graduated" from her program in the last several years remained in school through the 10th grade. Many have gone on to finish high school.

"It's designed to get them back in the school," she says. "They go back . . . in the traditional system with the skills they need to survive."

Founded by Ms. Matthews in 1980, the program wins high praise from City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, a long-time admirer.

"She creates a 'tough love' family environment," Ms. Clarke says. "There are high expectations that these children take responsibility for that school, keeping it clean, being there on time.

"And it's worked," she adds. "Others, I think, could follow the model."

School officials apparently agree.

For the last several years, the foundation's program struggled along on a shoestring. Last year, it operated on about $22,000 cobbled together by Ms. Matthews through gifts, grants from the city's Department of Mental Health and her own salary.

But this year, the program is an official part of the school system, with a budget of $305,000 that pays for the director, four full-time teachers, a recreation director, equipment and materials.

The program has a proven track record, says Arthur Pierce, who co-chaired a blue-ribbon task force on disruptive middle school students, set up in the wake of last February's shooting.

That record is a big part of why the school system chose to make the school the heart of its alternative middle school program, says Mr. Pierce, who has known Ms. Matthews since the mid-1980s.

"One of the things we wanted to establish was some credibility," he says.

To help staff the program, the school system hand-picked four city school teachers interested in working with disruptive youngsters.

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