At first glance, the building at the end of the new road outside Westminster looks like any modern school.
Architects included plenty of windows in the design. Brand-new computers abound in its classrooms. Kids jockey for position along a stainless steel lunch counter that serves up such school cafeteria standards as chicken nuggets, crinkle-cut fries and Jell-O.
The differences are subtle.
Classroom windows are placed high in the wall, allowing natural light to flood in but preventing easily distracted students from gazing out.
There are plastic forks and spoons - but no knives - in this cafeteria.
And when these students gathered on the first day of school last week, their chatter wasn't limited to summer vacations and new cars. Often, they gossiped about who got in trouble over the summer break, which friends got locked up and who's awaiting a court date.
Housed for years in a makeshift facility in rented office space, Carroll County's Gateway School has a new $5.4 million building. It's a place for middle and high school students facing long-term suspensions or struggling with learning disabilities or behavioral and emotional problems.
There, they have a more structured setting in which they are held accountable for their actions but not forever penalized for past mistakes.
"This is a second chance for them, a clean slate," said Janice Moore, a crisis and guidance counselor at the school who described part of her job as persuading incoming students that their past faults don't matter to her. "They don't have to live with that burden here. This is a do-over for them."
Many of the 94 students who currently attend Gateway relish that opportunity.
Among them is 15-year-old Tommy Troiano, a 5-foot-6, muscular freshman who was kicked out of two schools in two years "for fights and other stuff" before being sent to Gateway last year.
Among the "other stuff" was an assault charge stemming from a fight, he said, in which "a boy beat up two girls, I thought that was wrong, so I beat him up." On his first day of school last week, Tommy declared this to be the year he would "turn over a new leaf."
An adult, early
Just down the hall sits Cristopher Hamilton, 18, a lanky, red-haired senior who has lived on his own since his mother died of a drug overdose last year. Before he found a place to rent in Finksburg, Cris spent most of his nights sleeping beside a highway near school.
With no extended family to take him in and his father in Florida, he went to court to legally shed his status as a minor. He doesn't have to be in school - but he is, because he wants the type of job that's more easily had with a high school diploma.
And there's Brittany Decker, a bright, skinny 16-year-old senior with a piercing that hugs the arch of her eyebrow and an unabashed appreciation for the teachers and staff who work to understand her.
She doesn't mind school so much, would like to enroll in nursing school next year and prefers Gateway to Westminster High, where she said she got in trouble for fighting and for bringing Advil to school.
Like many of her classmates, Brittany is fighting a sickness - bipolar disorder, in her case - that makes school difficult and that transforms her from outgoing and energetic one minute to scowling and sullen the next.
"People think Gateway is a bad school for bad kids just like Hickey [the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School for juvenile offenders], but it's not like that," Tommy said. "People put you in here to help you. ... This school is hot, yo. I love this school."
Turning lives around
Most Maryland school systems have some kind of alternative program - evening course offerings or a wing of a school - for students who have not succeeded in traditional academic environments. About half have distinct schools for the youngsters with the rockiest of backgrounds and the most volatile histories of classroom conduct.
It's in these buildings, school administrators and state education officials say, where nontraditional teaching methods finally register, where lives slowly are turned around. Along the way, many of these teens shake their reputations as hoodlums and troublemakers, gain role models, conquer addictions and manage to earn that otherwise elusive diploma or transfer back to their home school.
In some cases, such tidy outcomes seem unimaginable at the start of the school year.
There are kids at Carroll County's Gateway School who have been sent there for using drugs, for bringing guns or knives to school, for threatening staff or students or for getting caught smoking at school at least four times. Students also are there for help dealing with emotional problems, such as depression or the lingering effects of fetal alcohol syndrome, and for intensive special education.
But Gateway's roster also includes students who ask to be transferred there because they feel bullied or alienated or overwhelmed at another school.
"It's ironic because we have students here who have been victimized but we also have the most violent students in the county attending Gateway," Principal Robert Cullison said.
"But it's also the calmest school in the county because of the measures we've taken and the resources we have to deal with it."
Walk through Gateway on a typical school day and the V-shaped building - with one wing for its middle-school program and another for its high-schoolers - looks and sounds like a typical school.
During the first week of classes, students began reading John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and grumbled over the inclusion of anything with Shakespeare in the description on the syllabus. They drew - not traced - sketches of their hands in art. And they expressed horror when told at an opening-day assembly that instead of sodas in vending machines there was juice.
But, again, there are differences.
Because struggling students learn better through hands-on, interactive projects, the kids in Melissa Robinson's ecology class were not just reading about plants, they were making plans to plant gardens designed to attract songbirds and butterflies.
A casual tour of the new school building turned worrisome for some students until school psychologist Brenda Gretzinger explained that the closet-like "time-out room" is not a punishment tool, but a place they can ask to go to to take a break.
Off the subject
And what English teacher Dottie Piper intended to be a low-key conversation about America's world role as a superpower instead sparked a rousing debate about police interactions with teen-agers. The topic had drifted when the class opted to read an article about juveniles' vulnerability to making false confessions rather than one titled "Is America an Empire?"
"All cops are [expletive]," one boy said. "I have never met a cop who was nice."
When Piper suggested that their own behavior might have triggered the officers' reactions and volunteered that she had never been shown disrespect in two traffic stops by police, her students could barely wait to prove her wrong.
"How old were you when you were pulled over?" Cris Hamilton demanded. "It's different when you're a teen-ager."
Piper wrapped up the discussion by asking whether they wanted her to invite an officer to the class, giving them a chance to directly voice their concerns.
Behind this seemingly relaxed environment lies a carefully structured disciplinary system and network of surveillance cameras, locked doors, hawk-eyed staffers and other security measures that administrators say ensure there are surprisingly few discipline problems.
The school also runs on a strict point system that rewards students for good behavior - acting responsibly, staying on task and respecting others - and penalizes them for straying off schedule, foul or disrespectful language and any reference at all to drugs, alcohol or sex.
Also of concern to teachers, administrators and a team of counselors on staff are the students' lives outside of school - family problems, teen-age pregnancies and a variety of issues that Gateway staff say go a long way toward explaining kids' disruptive behavior.
There are kids whose parents have committed suicide or overdosed, who have been convicted of murder or locked up for a variety of crimes. Others come from families so poor that their parents wrestle with whether to keep their children in school or send them to work.
"We have kids who have spent most of their lives in Hickey or Sheppard Pratt and everything in between," said Moore, the crisis counselor. "And we have some who live with both biological parents and siblings who all have the same last names - though we don't have too many of those."
Despite its strengths and student success stories, staff and students said, Gateway is perennially misunderstood.
"When people ask where you go to school and you say, 'Gateway,' they cringe," said Justin Smink, a 15-year-old sophomore in the alternative school's special education program. "They think it's a bad boy school and that's not true. ... We're actually not that bad. We just have trouble learning."
Principal Cullison brims with stories that he says reflect the community's misconceptions, chief among them that he's running a juvenile jail. He shakes his head when recalling the parent who thought the Gateway campus was on the barbed wire-encircled property that houses the school system's maintenance department.
"What surprises visitors to our building is the demeanor of our students in our classrooms," he said. "It's not a place of bedlam and chaos. It's not a place where you need to fear for your safety."
After years of delays, the old facility - a string of cramped offices and narrow hallways that the school system leased at Westminster Air Business Center - was finally replaced.
The new building - with its real cafeteria, not-quite-landscaped ball field and showplace of a media center - already has made the alternative education program even more like a school, staff and students say.
"These kids have the sense that they're throw-away kids," said Melissa Robbins, Gateway's special education department chairwoman. "Having school in a business air park, where phys ed teachers had to be certified bus drivers to drive kids somewhere else for gym, did nothing to dispel that image. This sends the message to the kids that they have real value. And they deserve that."
Last year, 27 students graduated from the Gateway School - its largest graduating class since the school emerged eight years ago from a regional program for high-intensity special education students and students serving extended school suspensions.
Three out of four
"Those are kids who probably wouldn't have graduated otherwise," said Cullison, adding that three out of every four Gateway students are successful in earning a diploma from the program or earning their way back to their home school.
"I know that's only 75 percent," he said. "But 100 percent of the kids who are here were not having success in a comprehensive school environment."
Only the remaining 172 school days will bear out how successful this year will be for these kids and others who will arrive before they all must traipse out Gateway's intercom-controlled door June 11 at the end of the last day of school.
Will Tommy Troiano manage to flip that leaf? His principal says things look good from what he has seen so far, and Tommy is resolved. "I'm trying to think about my future," he said. "After school, I want to go into the Marines and after that, college. I'm not sure what I want to do yet, but I'm going to figure it out."
Will Cris Hamilton earn that diploma and find the job he wants? His teachers say it won't be for a lack of inner strength or determination. "He's on his own now," said Robinson, the science teacher who counts Cris among her favorite students. "For him to walk back through those doors [last] Monday morning, I was very impressed."
And Brittany Decker, will she get to nursing school? Her teachers and counselors don't question her smarts or her ability to succeed. But that has never been what's tangled her up before.
In the meantime, there will be class field trips to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, community service projects and rock-climbing and backpacking adventures. Dottie Piper's senior seminar class will confront a veteran police officer about his profession's handling of teen-agers.
All the while, kids will be earning good-behavior points and advancing through Gateway's intricate scoring system.
And if all goes well for Tommy, Cris and Brittany, they could be among those three out of four who earn that ticket back to their home schools or to a graduation ceremony.