'Positive' help for troubled youths Disruptive students thrive amid strict rules, strong support

March 01, 1998|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

The 60 students at Providence Academy in Crownsville, a last-chance school for disruptive ninth- and 10th-graders, can't cut class in the building because there's no place to hide. If they push open the doors to get outside, an alarm sounds. Even if they sneak off the grounds, they'll wind up at a police station or in the woods. And they can't slip drugs or weapons into school in their knapsacks because the principal banned dark-colored book bags and passed out see-through ones instead.

They have no choice but to go to class.

"You can't skip," said a 15-year-old girl who came from Meade Senior High, where she cut her computer typing class so frequently that when she did go to class, she didn't know what was going on. "Where am I going to go?"

The school, the first of its kind in Anne Arundel County, opened in January last year in the county-owned Winterode building on the grounds of Crownsville Hospital Center after a $1 million renovation. It is the state's 18th alternative high school for students with disciplinary problems.

It has become a place where the distractions of large high schools are replaced by incentives to concentrate: one teacher for every seven students, "points" every 15 minutes for being good, praise for the slightest academic or disciplinary achievement.

The students, once chronic class-cutters on their way out of the public school system for fighting, carrying weapons and other misdeeds, say they like the structure, positive feedback and teacher attention. And even those who once were among the worst students are making the honor roll, some for the first time.

Teachers have as few as three students in some classes, and students appear to concentrate so much that it is hard to imagine many of them being disruptive. Administrators, wearing "No Gossip" buttons on their shirts, know the students by name.

Most students seem to be thriving, but Principal Joan A. Valentine worries about whether they will continue to do so when they return to their former surroundings. She and her staff have stemmed disciplinary problems during the one or two semesters the students spend at Providence, but the change doesn't always last.

Valentine said one former student told her that going back to his old high school after one semester at Providence was a mistake, and she has heard from administrators that some students reverted to their old ways upon returning.

"You really need to have somebody to help the kids, at least through the first semester back," something she is trying to figure out how to do, she said.

'Stay positive'

Nonetheless, "the buzzword around here is 'stay positive,' " she said.

The walls are covered with bright messages such as: "Try to think of ways to make your day positive," and "Respect yourself and others."

There are stricter messages, too, some posted and some delivered orally: no gossiping (it causes fights); no markers (they lead to graffiti); no cursing or degrading other students; and, most important, stay focused all day on classwork, respect and control of your behavior.

"There's no doubt in anyone's mind in this building who's in charge, and that's the way I like it," Valentine said. "I could care less if all the kids tell you they like it. That's not relevant. What's relevant is, 'Are you successful? Are you doing better than you were doing before?' "

The students say they are.

A 15-year-old wearing oversized jeans and earrings who passed only physical education and one semester of mathematics at Northeast High School in Pasadena said he "wasn't focused at all."

"I didn't show any respect to the teachers, either," said the youth, whose name, like that of the other students, is not being printed at Valentine's request to protect their anonymity. The student, who charmed his way out of most punishments, even for the fights he started, gets honor roll grades at Providence Academy, and he attributes that to Valentine.

"Ms. Valentine is probably the only principal I ever had who I couldn't talk out of a decision," he said.

Accessible teachers

Another 15-year-old said the teachers at Providence Academy are more accessible than those at larger schools.

"If I need help, I just raise my hand and they come," he said.

The youth is spending his second semester at the alternative school because of fights in middle school. He will go to Glen Burnie High School in September.

A 15-year-old girl, a blend of teen-age confidence and coyness, said she is getting A's because classes are so small she can't goof off, fall asleep or not participate. She is one of three students in her Spanish class, for example.

Neither she nor her classmates can avoid writing answers on the board or speaking aloud in Span- ish. Although their pronunciation missed the mark one day last week, the teacher praised them with "perfecto" for a correct answer.

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