Violent students targeted

March 29, 1994|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore school officials want to hire a private, nonprofit company to educate some of the city's most violent youths.

Woodbourne Center Inc., which treats emotionally disturbed children and operates a city public school for special education students, has been tapped to run the Alternative Middle School in West Baltimore. The city's Board of Estimates is scheduled to consider the proposal tomorrow.

Under the proposed $95,000 contract, Baltimore-based Woodbourne initially would operate the alternative school at its existing site, an aging building behind William H. Lemmel Middle School on North Dukeland Street. The school can handle up to 60 students and now has about 30.

An interim director from Woodbourne would oversee the school until June, and its 15-member school system staff would be supplemented by two additional specialists.

The school system plans to look at other sites and negotiate another contract for next fall that would allow Woodbourne to operate a new, expanded school and to offer counseling and violence-prevention services at middle schools citywide.

School officials looked to Woodbourne after two years of unsuccessful efforts to create a school capable of educating violent youths.

The company would take over the existing middle school within days of approval, becoming its third operator in three years. The private, city-based Foundation for Youth Impact ran it in 1992-1993, and the school system reassumed control last fall.

Under the proposal, Woodbourne would build bridges between school and family, offer counseling during and after school, devise plans and progress reports for each student, and train staff members to prevent and respond to violent behavior.

Lillian Gonzalez, a deputy school superintendent, said she found the company's emphasis on family involvement particularly appealing.

"We have to work in the context of the family so the family can recognize and offer the necessary support to modify behavior, attitudes and expectations," she said.

Dr. Gonzalez said she is confident that Woodbourne will meet the goals used to evaluate its effort: reducing violence while boosting attendance, academic performance and the proportion of students returning to regular schools.

As it does when treating adolescents in residential and outpatient programs, Woodbourne would begin its work by having a staff member eat a meal at each student's home. Often, the students come from families racked by addiction, abuse, neglect and poverty.

"If you want to see these young people and what they have to contend with, you go and have a meal with them and their family," said John Hodge-Williams, Woodbourne's president. "We discover what the family dynamics are and try to enrich that family so they begin to discuss things in a more positive way.

"The families will tell us . . . that one of the best benefits we'vever given them is that we've taught them they can have a meal in relative tranquillity."

Superintendent Walter G. Amprey and Dr. Gonzalez said the school system would like to expand Woodbourne's role in September. They envision a new school with more students, tentatively named Woodbourne Academy, and want the company to intervene in other schools citywide to reduce suspensions and academic dismissals.

Dr. Amprey, in his third year at the helm, has repeatedly stressed the need to find alternatives to removing problem children from school, because, he says, removal too often leads to dropping out.

The number of disciplinary removals this year -- which last up to three days -- are on a pace to exceed last year's total of 14,106. Students removed cannot return before their parents attend a conference with school administrators.

More serious suspensions, which can lead to expulsions for a quarter or an entire year, have been on par with last year's 2,052.

Woodbourne has worked with the city school system for about 30 years and runs the city's Woodbourne Day School on Sinclair Lane for emotionally disturbed special education students. At three other Baltimore sites, two of them residential, the company treats emotionally disturbed teens and abuse victims.

The proposal grows out of the June 1992 recommendations of a task force that called for placing violent middle school students in programs run by the school system and private operators. The task force was created after the February 1992 shooting of a school police officer at Roland Park Elementary-Middle School.

The school system already runs an alternative school for older students, the Francis M. Wood Alternative High School on North Calhoun Street in West Baltimore.

The proposed contract is the latest example of the school system's willingness to turn to the private sector. Education Alternatives Inc. operates nine city schools and handles administrative and maintenance services at several others, while Sylvan Learning Centers offers tutoring.

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