Turning around problem students


As a sixth-grader last year at a Prince George's County middle school, Michael Simmons often refused to work, periodically walked out of class and once issued such a flurry of expletives he made a teacher cry.

Last week in English class, though, the 13-year-old was downright decorous. He raised his hand to answer questions, spoke politely to his teachers and never left his seat. Darryl Harper, who taught Michael last year, can't get over the change. "To see him sit down, Wow!" said Mr. Harper. "It's a gift from God."

Michael's change in attitude is apparently due not to divine intervention, but to governmental. Last spring, the state opened a school in Bladensburg, Prince George's County, to handle disruptive students such as Michael from around the region.

The Annapolis Road Middle School, as it is called, draws sixth- through eighth-graders from Prince George's, Montgomery, Howard and Anne Arundel counties.

A private company in Portsmouth, Va., First Home Care, runs the facility. The staff is trying to improve student self-discipline and studies through intensive supervision, parental involvement and a longer school day.

The cost is considerable -- $26,000 a student -- more than four times the amount spent on pupils in regular Prince George's schools and a little less than a year's tuition at Princeton University. Proponents, however, see it as investing in youths before they become hardened in high school and end up costing the state even more money in the criminal justice system.

"This is designed to take kids who are on a clear path to the Hickey School," said Annapolis Road supporter and former Prince George's Del. Timothy F. Maloney, referring to the state reformatory in Baltimore County, which costs taxpayers more than $50,000 per student. "If we wait until the kids are 15 and 16, it's too late."

After only six months in operation, there is no objective way to measure the school's success. By all accounts, though, at least some of the 60 students are progressing.

When the school opened in March, the building was under renovation and, in the words of director Deborah White, "a construction site." Wires dangled from open ceilings, jackhammers reverberated in the halls. Taking their cue from the disarray, students literally jumped out the first-floor windows.

"First day, a [12-year-old] kid told me to kiss his . . . a " recalled caseworker Waverly Carter who, at 6 feet, 285 pounds, is an imposing presence on the staff.

Six months later, etiquette has improved. Youths who drove teachers to distraction last year seem to pay more attention and occasionally help each other to learn.

During an English class last week, 12-year-old Deyon Wilson struggled while reading a short story aloud. Snagged on the word "menace," he slapped his hands against his head and tried to sound it out. "Man, this is messing me up."

In some schools, students would have ridiculed Deyon. But at Annapolis Road, his classmates waited patiently, looked at their books and said nothing. Finally, 13-year-old Mimi Everett folded a piece of paper, leaned across the table and placed it beneath the line of text to help Deyon proceed.

Along with such small triumphs have come predictable setbacks. While the school hopes to return three students to their regular schools later this fall, it has already expelled two others. One brought an X-acto knife to class, another hit a fellow student over the head with a two-by-four, Ms. White said.

And handling a roomful of disruptive kids is clearly not for everyone. Since the school opened, eight people have left the staff of 25.

Disruptive students are a growing problem in Maryland. In some schools, they control the tempo and tenor of classes, hitting one another, wandering about during lessons and even tossing each other over desks.

The number of reported physical attacks on students and staff rose from about 23,000 during the 1992-1993 school year to 25,031 during 1993-1994, according to the state Department of LTC

Education. Maryland has more than 20 alternative schools around the state for disruptive students.

What sets Annapolis Road apart is the program's intensity and duration.

The school runs year-round and the day stretches from 8:30 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. The staff has contact with parents as often as once a week. As the program progresses, employees plan to use some of what they learn to instruct other public school teachers on techniques for handling disruptive youth.

Perhaps the single greatest advantage to alternative schools such as Annapolis Road is the student-teacher ratio. Each classroom has a teacher, a teaching assistant and a caseworker who together supervise eight to 10 students.

The small class size allows teachers to spread youngsters far enough apart that they can't hit one another. By contrast, regular public schools routinely pack 25, 30 or more students into a classroom with a single teacher.

While teachers instruct, assistants patrol the rooms at Annapolis Road, picking up deliberately dropped pencils, separating students, helping them with their studies, and removing them from class when necessary.

During a science lab, Mr. Carter hauled three youths out after a shouting match. In his office, he talked to them for more than 10 minutes about their responsibilities as the oldest students at the school and the disrespect they showed females by cursing in class.

It was hard to tell whether Mr. Carter had much impact. At various times, the teen-agers smirked, laughed, got up out of their chairs and wandered around the office. Each time, he corralled them back into their seats. "Stay with me," he said, repeating his message of self-control and responsibility.

Afterward, one of the youths, 16-year-old D. J. Summerville, talked about a reason for his behavior -- his frustration with the recent break-up of his parents. He said he used to let his anger build and then unleash it, but has improved since coming to Annapolis Road.

"They started telling me what I was doing wrong and how I needed control," he said. If all goes well, D. J. expects to return to a regular public school in nine weeks.

But the $26,000 question in D. J.'s case and every other is this: Free from the controlled environment at Annapolis Road, will he simply revert to his old ways?

Peter Leone, a professor of education who runs the Center for the Study of Troubling Behavior at the University of Maryland College Park, says evaluations of such programs are sparse and rely to some degree on anecdotes. Evidence suggests, however, that about half the students will continue to use their new skills and successfully return to regular school life.

To help D. J. make the transition, a caseworker will follow him for a year, visiting him monthly and staying in contact with his parents.

Of D. J.'s future, Mr. Carter says: "He's on the fence. So far, we're saving him."

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