Suspended students sent to CLASS for a life lesson

A community program is used to teach youths alternatives to lashing out through performing kind acts for others.

April 24, 2005|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

Talai Costley admits she has a bad temper.

It's what fueled her profanity-laced tirades against the principal, teachers and other students at Liberty High in Sykesville. And it's what prompted frustrated school officials about a month ago to suspend the 17-year-old junior for the rest of the semester.

But Costley's temper might have led her to a chance to turn things around.

She is among more than 100 Carroll County students who have joined the Community Learning and Suspension Service, a voluntary program that aims to give students a constructive way to spend their time while they are barred from school.

"I still have my bad temper," Costley said. "But I'm a better student here. This is like a new beginning."

The program was created about a year ago through a state grant associated with the federal No Child Left Behind Act and local school funding. Carroll County was one of four Maryland school systems that won two-year grants to start the program.

Local school officials believe that Carroll is the only one that provides a three-pronged approach that combines academics, community service and counseling. It accepts students who have been suspended anywhere from a day to an entire school year.

"Unfortunately, there are some students who look forward to being suspended because [it means] they have no schoolwork, few consequences and little structure while suspended," said Tom Kirk, the program's facilitator.

He said the program holds students responsible for their offenses, but focuses on teaching them alternatives to lashing out when they don't get their way.

Housed in a portable on the campus of Gateway School, an alternative high school in Westminster, the facility has classrooms and a counseling office.

A seven-member staff includes an instructor, special-education assistant, two part-time counselors and a community service coordinator.

The program generally accepts no more than 10 middle school pupils and 10 high school students at a time, but enrollment fluctuates as students enter and exit the program.

Students spend half the day receiving instruction in general subjects, including history, geometry and English. They earn course credits as they would at their home schools and are issued report cards.

The other half of the day is spent on community service projects. For their efforts, students earn the required service hours needed for graduation.

Its organizers boast of impressive strides with their new charges.

Kirk points to unofficial numbers that indicate a 17 percent reduction in suspensions for the first three-quarters of this school year over the same time the previous year. He said school officials credit his program along with other intervention services, such as mediation and more parent conferences.

Organizers said the program's attendance rate for students on extended suspensions -- those banned from school for 10 days or more -- has averaged 96 percent.

Only three of the 110 participants have required suspension while in the program and only five have been suspended again after completing it. And no students have dropped out of school while attending the program or after completing it.

As of last week, students had performed about 2,290 hours of service, according to Brad Whalen, the group's community service instructor.

During a recent assignment at Piney Run Park in Eldersburg, about 10 students worked to save the park's towering oak and maple trees from the beavers.

The mission was to slather a generous mixture of gray latex paint, gravel and sand across the tree trunks because beavers avoid those trees that are painted with the grainy concoction.

In teams of two or three, the students tackled the trees marked by orange tags and, in a couple of hours, they had completed the task.

To ensure that students are not merely providing unpaid labor, the program is selective about the types of community service projects the group will undertake. They have volunteered at hospitals, senior centers and schools.

"In this program, we've tried to emphasize the learning," Kirk said. "Not just learning academically, but also learning that they are a meaningful part of the community. In giving to others, it bolsters their self-esteem and helps them feel connected."

Among other community service projects, the students have read to children in the Head Start program at Robert Moton Elementary in Westminster. They have prepared grief boxes -- actually decorated bags that include a poem, tissues, notepads and pens and candy -- for families at Carroll Hospice.

They spend about 10 hours a week volunteering at the West End Adult Day Care, performing tasks such as landscaping and painting outdoor furniture for the center's elderly clients.

"Some of these kids are tough kids, but you take them to a place like Head Start and you see a different side of them," said Lu Ann Hash, the program's bus driver and an assistant. "I've seen a lot of progress with these kids."

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