Alternative for students in trouble

June 13, 1994|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Sun Staff Writer

Most classes have one -- the student who won't pay attention to the teacher, and who wants everyone else to pay attention to him.

Now imagine a whole school of those students, mixed in with troublemakers who have been kicked out of their schools for fighting, vandalism, truancy or even carrying a weapon.

Welcome to the Alternative Program of Carroll County public schools, a stopover where students spend anywhere from a few weeks to the rest of the year, until they are ready to try again in their own schools.

It is a surprisingly quiet place with carpeting, air conditioning and no graffiti on bathroom walls. This in a place where many of the students were kicked out of their schools for vandalism and fighting, points out Larry Norris, supervisor of Alternative Programs.

His school looks more like a suite of offices. Students attend class in a building at the Air Business Park in Westminster, while around them people arrive and leave for jobs at the neighboring firms and state agencies.

Herb, a sophomore from Liberty High School, agreed to enter the Alternative Program when he realized he might not have a choice later.

"With a few more actions, like disrupting the class a few more times, I would have been kicked out," he said. He and school officials asked that his last name not be used, to protect his privacy while he makes a fresh educational start.

"I would bust out with wisecracks, talk to friends all day. I never found out why I did it, but I did it a lot," Herb said.

But he knew enough about him self to answer a reporter's question about why he volunteered for an interview.

"I like attention," he said.

Herb is one of about 100 students in the Alternative Program. About 60 percent are like him, students who are not making the grade because they're disrupting class, they can't pay attention or they don't like school enough to show up every day.

These students and their parents may opt for the Alternative Program, where they'll get more individual attention and a more structured program for nine weeks -- one grading period. At the ** end of the grading period, if they're ready, they go back to their schools.

The other 40 percent are there because they received an "extended suspension," the official term for getting kicked out of school for more than five days. An extended suspension is mandated by the superintendent and is usually for the rest of a semester or school year, for violent offenses and other serious or chronic problems.

Like most of the students there, Herb doesn't look or act like a troublemaker. Of medium height and slight build, Herb has wavy hair parted in the middle and falling to his jaw.

He has a quiet, intelligent manner and converses easily. A little too easily, perhaps: Herb was always too busy talking to pay attention to assignments. Since seventh grade, he has earned C's and D's.

After spending the last grading period in the Alternative Program, he is making straight A's, he said.

"Well, probably straight A's. I don't know what my math grade is yet," he said. "Since sixth grade, I haven't had a report card that didn't have a D.

"In elementary school, I used to do pretty good, but I didn't have any friends. I was kind of a wienie," he said. By seventh grade, he had made more friends.

"I would not pay attention to the teacher, because I'd be talking to my friends. I would miss assignments," he said.

The small, close environment of the Alternative Program gave him more one-on-one teacher attention, and took away the temptation to chat with friends.

At Liberty, he'd see a different group in each class. A different teacher in each class.

"You give up a lot to go here, but you get a lot back," he said. "I'm going back to Liberty next year because I think now I can do it. I think maybe with a taste of good grades, it will make me want to keep them."

Allan Butler is the coordinator of the program, but functions much like a principal for the students.

"One of the things I think is important in a program like this is to show kids you care about them," Mr. Butler said.

He tries to get the students to acknowledge at least part of the problem for which they are sent to him, to begin to take responsibility.

"I say, 'We care about you, but this is what happened, and this is the consequence of that action,' " he said.

When students arrive, and before students leave the program to go back to their schools, they take part in committee meetings with their parents, teachers, counselors and other staff.

Coralie, a Westminster mother who asked that her last name not be used to protect her son's privacy, said Mr. Butler is the kind of disciplinarian students still like. Her son breaks into a warm smile at the mention of Mr. Butler, she said.

At first, Coralie was suspicious of the program.

"My own feeling was, is this going to punish him because he's disruptive, or are you going to help him with his educational problem? I was feeling a little skeptical about that," she said.

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