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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 20, 2002
They got in trouble. They all did something bad, that we know. Some of their offenses were minor. Some offenses were serious enough, however, to have landed them in jail under ordinary circumstances. Their ages are 12 to 15, and they are in sixth through eighth grade.
They are the 73 students attending Safety Harbor Secondary School. This is no ordinary school.
No, this is a place where young people are sent to redeem themselves, to prove that they can get along in a regular school setting -- and in society at large -- where trouble is the exception and not the rule.
I was here because Philip Wirth, the principal, asked me to speak to the students and staff, to observe, to hang out.
I spoke to two separate groups. When each entered the room, I sat to the side and observed. The first thing I noticed was their uniformity in dress. Yes, the school (a public school!) has a strict dress code. All shirts and blouses (plain white) were neatly tucked into either black or navy blue pants or jeans. No one wore shorts. I saw only waist-located logos on pants and jeans. Shirts and blouses were logo-free.
The dress code is important because it is emblematic of the school's purpose, as expressed in its mission statement: "To create opportunities for personal growth and continuous social and academic improvement. We will accomplish this in an atmosphere of trust and cooperation."
Yes, kids are wont to compete, but at Safety Harbor Middle, the real competition is between the students' old self and the new one they are trying to create, between the old forces that caused their problems and the new ones that will rescue them and help them return to their schools and perhaps to new lives.
The school's anchor is its no-nonsense view of its students and why they are here. Who is responsible for the child's problems? The child is. Period.
Here is what the school's official assignment document states: "Students are reassigned to the program because they have chosen behavior(s) in the traditional school setting that interfere with their education and the education of others." Students choose their behaviors, good or bad.
The key, of course, is convincing young people that they play a role in determining their fates, that they play a leading role in how others treat them. One point I made was that all of us, no matter how young or old, give people clues as to how we want to be treated. Many young black males, for example, believe that "being smart" is "acting white." I pointed out that if that is true, then being the opposite -- "being dumb" -- is being black.
The simple point is that black males can change the way teachers and others treat them by changing how they view intellectuality. Another point, meant for all students, is that simple politeness will open more doors of opportunity than rudeness. These are behaviors we choose. The school teaches this valuable lesson.
Indeed, in addition to the academic areas of English, reading and math, the school enforces zero tolerance for violent behavior and profanity. Each morning, students pledge to avoid violence and profanity, often the problems that landed them in hot water.
Another key to the school's success is its requirement that parents must be involved in their children's school lives. They must attend conferences with teachers and their children. Parents and their children must complete community projects that show the importance of living wholesomely with their neighbors.
Philip Wirth, the principal, is the driving force behind the school's success. He and his staff are on a mission: to work hard to save every child who comes to them.
I have personal experience with schools such as this. My son attended one. No matter how hard I preached good behavior, he choose something else. Fortunately, he had people like Wirth, who believed in him -- who were forgiving and willing to give him a second chance.
The students at Safety Harbor Secondary are children who made mistakes. Too many of us, including school board policymakers, forget that we are dealing with children too immature, both physiologically and emotionally, to make adult decisions. Yet we shun them and condemn them.
Visiting this school reminded me that when children from certain backgrounds are at issue, we tend to be unforgiving. Wirth and his staff are giving kids who committed youthful indiscretions a second chance to redeem themselves.