When the conventional schools fail, Ombudsman offers 'a piece of success'

January 20, 1995|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Sun Staff Writer

In a one-room schoolhouse tucked behind a Southwest Baltimore storefront, they find hope -- the chronic truants, the fighters, the kids who got lost in chaotic classes, the failing teen-agers ready to write off school for good.

Their new school, run by Ombudsman Educational Services, an Illinois for-profit company, is unlike anything the students have known.

Here, near the B&O Railroad Museum on Pratt Street, the school day lasts three hours. No homework, no textbooks, no lecturing teachers, no gym, no cafeteria, no art.

Instead, the students, who are referred here by three middle schools, sit quietly and work on basic skills in a room with computers lining the walls. And they get plenty of individual attention: Four teachers work directly with no more than 15 students at a time.

School officials, who hope to expand the program, say its unorthodox approach and non-threatening atmosphere have made all the difference. Students agree.

Vasheita Harp, an eighth-grader from Booker T. Washington Middle School who started at Ombudsman about three months ago, says she came close to dropping out.

"It was no use going there when I wasn't learning anything," she said, as she worked division problems on a computer. She added, "It was getting me because I wasn't learning, and I was afraid I was going to fail."

At Ombudsman, she said, "It's good because all the students get along with the teachers. We're buddies. . . . My life has changed. I want to go through every day of school and I want to finish."

The program, now in its second year here, costs about $3,000 per student, less than most schools spend in standard schools. It's financed by the nonprofit Abell Foundation and state grant money.

About 40 students -- referred from Arnett J. Brown, Diggs-Johnson and Booker T. Washington middle schools -- attend one of three daily sessions. Teachers, all state-certified, befriend students and rely on gentle counseling instead of more traditional discipline. They guide students through computer-assisted instruction, written work and reading, in subjects such as reading comprehension and math.

Before starting classes, all students must sign an agreement pledging to attend school, complete academic work, follow rules banning foul language and radios, and avoid interfering with others' learning.

It's too early to measure academic success for Ombudsman, so named because it is an advocate for children who face huge school bureaucracies.

But a Johns Hopkins University researcher's evaluation of Ombudsman's first year found that it had significantly improved attendance, to nearly 88 percent, compared with 63.5 percent for a control group. The researcher credited the program's individualized instruction, its use of technology and the way it reduced the chances of failure.

Superintendent Walter G. Amprey said he's pleased with the company's work and would like to expand Ombudsman programs to as many as five other Baltimore schools next year. But he needs money.

"It seems to provide the kind of alternative we need," he said. "It seems to help schools because the schools have a place to send most recalcitrant and disruptive youngsters."

Dr. Amprey and other city officials have long acknowledged the need for more alternatives for disruptive students, particularly those in middle school.

Woodbourne Center Inc., a private, nonprofit company, operates Baltimore's only other alternative school for disruptive middle-school students. The city agreed to pay Woodbourne $12,000 per student to operate the school for 60 students, but only 17 had been enrolled as of last month at the facility, next to Lemmel Middle School.

Ombudsman began in 1975 in North Chicago as an intervention program for public high school students considered drop-out risks. Its approach has won widespread praise, and the company now operates about 30 alternative schools for students in seven states.

Robert G. Wood, a former city police officer who serves as the program's director and one of its four teachers, said the program strives to build on students' skills -- however basic -- and 'N convince them that they can succeed in school.

He knows the students face tough odds -- being unsuccessful in school, as well as living in neighborhoods beset by drugs, violence, poverty and single-parent homes.

"I think there's a preconceived sense of failure both for the students and some of the people who've dealt with them in the system," Mr. Wood said. "We try to find a piece of success with these students, give them something to build on. For some of these kids, just getting here is progress."

Most keep coming back, and Mr. Wood is no small part of the reason.

He serves as teacher -- and, by turns, as surrogate father, counselor, soccer coach and friend. And he's the one who often shows up at students' homes in his Toyota pickup if a phone call home doesn't get them into the school.

At first, Deborah Perry wanted no part of Ombudsman when her son, Jesse, began falling behind, tearing up books and fighting at Diggs-Johnson last year.

"You can go to school six hours a day like everybody else. You can do this if you put your mind to it," she said. But after visiting Ombudsman and talking to Mr. Wood, she became a convert.

Today, she says of her son: "If this is what he has to do to get an education, it's great because at Diggs-Johnson, he wasn't getting anything. He would have dropped out.

"It was like my prayers were answered at Ombudsman."

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