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Outdoor program offers Baltimore County high school students a second chance

Students with the Catonsville Center for Alternative Studies complete their unit on biking with a 12-mile trip around the BWI Loop Trail. (Lauren Loricchio/Baltimore Sun video)

Nick Sappe, 15, of Arbutus, is one of 65 students at the Catonsville Center for Alternative Studies, a school that aims to improve academics, social behavior and social skills for at-risk youth.

The Lansdowne High School sophomore said he was placed in the temporary program when he was caught with marijuana in a school bathroom.

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He was "suspended to the board," sent to the alternative school instead of being kept out of school on suspension.

In Baltimore County public schools, the superintendent can assign a student to one of four alternative schools in the county for safety concerns, to reduce disruption to their home school or if it serves the best interest of the student, according to Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) student conduct policies.

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That length of the assignment varies from a quarter to an entire year and is determined on a case-by-case basis, said Shawn Krause, a teacher at the school.

Students from Lansdowne to Towson are sent the school for reasons such as breaking the student code of conduct, being arrested or needing extra support and attention in school, Krause said.

Students may return to the school multiple times, Krause said.

Krause is also in charge of a unique adventure program at the school that introduces students to outdoor experiences, like canoeing and hiking, they might not have tried before.

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Next month, the school will offer an indoor rock climbing program, Krause said.

Krause also takes the students on field trips to nearby Patapsco Valley State Park, on 13-mile bike rides around the Baltimore-Washington International AirportI loop and on canoe trips on the nearby Patapsco River.

The trips teach team-building skills, Krause said.

"That whole team building aspect, of building trust with your peers and building trust with your teachers, is such a wonderful opportunity for these kids," said Leeann Schubert, director of alternative education for BCPS.

The school aims to improve their chances of graduating from high school, Schubert said.

"Our goal is that, if a student is at one of the alternative settings, they are still working in their courses to stay on track to graduate high school," Schubert said.

With only 65 students in grades 9-12 at the alternative school on South Rolling Road compared to the 1,211 at Lansdowne High, for example, students receive more attention.

"When anyone takes a personal interest in [these students] they see a return," Krause said. "Having small classes, you can build personal relationships with the students."

"In general, they find someone here they can connect with, and that person helps them move forward and hopefully, get out of the juvenile justice system," Krause said.

Personalized attention from teachers helped to bring Ubaldo Belmontes, 17, out of his shell. The 11th-grader from Reisterstown has been enrolled in the school since November after getting caught smoking marijuana in a school bathroom.

"Before I was an introvert. But now, I'm not afraid to speak up and say what is needed," Belmontes said .

Both Sappe and Belmontes said they enjoy the field trips and hands-on learning experiences offered in the program.

"I like how we go on these field trips and learn about stuff that I never learned at my old school, like canoeing," Sappe said.

Students can also earn the community service hours required for graduation by helping local organizations such as Catonsville Rails to Trails.

"They have done a tremendous amount helping with the maintenance of the trail," said Maureen Sweeney Smith, a spokeswoman for the Catonsville nonprofit. "They take a lot of pride in what they do."

The students do physical tasks like removing trees, laying gravel and spreading mulch, Krause said.

Krause said the experiences helping community members reinforces good behavior.

For example, one student rebuked for hanging out at a 7-Eleven in Catonsville later helped to landscape a mural next to the store as part of a beautification project. When the project was finished, the store owner shook his hand and thanked him, Krause said. "There are a lot of those positive moments here," he said.

The school system does not track high school graduation data from the school, Schubert said.

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