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A hard lesson to learn

With educators refusing to put up with disruptive behavior, more students are shuttled to alternative schools.

[Times photos: Toni L. Sandys]
MacFarlane Park Alternative School principal Bonnie O'Brien chats with seventh-grader Jennifer Perdomo before the students go on a field trip, a reward for good behavior.

By SARAH SCHWEITZER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 26, 2000


TAMPA -- On a January day, lanky, blue-eyed Cyrus Khanalizadeh handed a classmate two mints in first period. He told her, with a mixture of foolishness and brazen defiance, they were the drug ecstasy.

Soon a teacher heard about it, then the principal. By the end of the month, Cyrus had been kicked out of Wilson Middle School.

A bigger jolt followed. His new school would be a place where a wand passes over his clothing every morning in a hunt for weapons. Where students march around campus in a single file line. Where his class has just 14 students.

Where everything seems -- and is -- a world apart from his comfortable middle school in South Tampa's Hyde Park.

Thirteen-year-old Cyrus is among a growing pool of students caught in the vortex of zero tolerance policies and ebbing patience for disruptive students -- forces pushing students into alternative schools designed to rein in disciplinary problems.

Alternative school enrollments are rising rapidly in Florida, a trend mirrored nationwide. In Hillsborough County, enrollment jumped from 140 students in 1991 to 776 in 1999. Pinellas County's went from 122 in 1995 to 731 last year, while Pasco's jumped from 15 in 1995 to 50 in 1999.

With fewer problem kids in traditional schools, advocates say, teachers have more time for well-behaved students and administrators have peace of mind knowing all efforts have been made to avert another Columbine. Problem students, meanwhile, benefit from smaller classes, intensive oversight and one-on-one counseling.

But to some educators, the rising enrollment underscores a troubling pattern of trigger-hair responses to misbehavior. Rather than focusing on preventive measures, they say, schools are lumping all misbehaving students together -- for better or worse.

photo
Teacher Emily Brushwood tries to get Phillip Brown to finish a writing assignment before the end of the lesson period.
"With alternative schools we are falling into the phenomenon of: Build them and they will come," says Pam Riley, executive director of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence at North Carolina State University. "Schools need to be looking at a continuum of consequences for young people."

The success of alternative schools is difficult to gauge because many school districts don't track these students. Features like smaller class, experts say, help ensure good outcomes. But there are no guarantees.

For some parents, though, the schools are a godsend.

"They do everything they can for him," says Victor Santiago, a stepfather of a child in an alternative school. "I just hope it's enough."

The students come from all points on the socio-economic spectrum and bring all kinds of disciplinary histories. Their paths converge at schools like West Tampa's MacFarlane Park, two neat rows of 15 wooden portable classrooms across from a city park.

Kids like Jeremy Pierson, a freckle-faced fifth-grader from Baycrest Elementary who was removed for continually disruptive behavior. Or Nikita Johnson, 13, booted from Madison Middle School for strong-arming a girl out of milk money on the school bus. And Myra Garcia, a 15-year-old tomboy kicked out of Leto High School for selling marijuana.

Last week, MacFarlane Park's roster counted 98 students. They range from fourth to 10th grade and will stay at MacFarlane Park from a semester to a full school year.

Virginia Bradford, 13, is a new arrival on a recent day. She is an alternative school veteran, having spent four months at the North Tampa Alternative School until she was kicked out for having five Ritalin pills that the school said she planned to crush and snort.

As the strawberry-blond girl with a button nose takes a seat in the school office next to her mother, the school's take-no-guff principal, Bonnie O'Brien, wastes little time.

"What are your intentions?" she asks.

Her response: eye-rolling, leg-bouncing indifference.

Her mother, Elizabeth Bradford, leaps to fill the silence. "I hope Virginia can change her attitude."

"That's up to Virginia," O'Brien says.

"That's what I tell her," her mother says through clenched teeth as she prepares to leave. "This is your last chance."

In past decades, Virginia would have been the student perpetually at home waiting for a suspension to end. When alternative schools started in the 1970s, they were mostly for pregnant and drug-addicted teens.

All that changed in the 1990s.

"When schools started with zero-tolerance, what they discovered is that if you expel students, they won't be any better in the community than they were in school," says Robert Barr, a senior analyst at the Center for School Improvement in Boise, Idaho. "So districts decided to kick them into something."

Hillsborough's alternative schools began expanding in the early 1990s, growing to six today. Pinellas started its program in 1994, eventually opening four schools, while Pasco began its own in 1993 and now has two schools.

The schools filled quickly with kids who brought weapons or drugs to school or continually disrupted class -- behavior that judges at expulsion hearings deemed unfit for traditional school. Parents of well-behaved students cheered.

"The community was coming to us and saying that behavior seems dangerous, do something," says Nancy Zambito, Pinellas County's director of school operations. "We have had to respond to it."

The pendulum is unlikely to swing back anytime soon, although some districts are taking small steps that way. Last week, the Hillsborough School Board voted to modify policy and not require expulsion for possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana. The board decided that the 176 kids sent to alternative school this year for the offense was just too many.

* * *
School police Officer Rodrigo Aviles uses a metal detector to check for weapons at MacFarlane Park Alternative School.

In MacFarlane Park's fourth-grade classroom, a typical scene unfolds: Groups of students sprawled on the floor, a few bunched in the corner, others outside. Some eyes scanCharlotte's Web, a third-grade book, others read the more advanced Mr. Popper's Penguins.

While students are assigned to classes by ability, reading and math levels still vary widely. So multiple assignments are given, requiring that teachers explain work and keep students on task with carefully orchestrated disbursement of attention.

"We think of it as creative chaos," says Emily Brushwood, a second-year teacher. "There's a lot of learning going on in there."

Esteem building too. The average math and reading level at the school is third grade. Many students have been academic laggards for years, too far behind for time-strapped teachers in traditional schools to help.

MacFarlane Park teachers, with classes as small as 10 students, have more time to cajole, push and praise each one. "You help their esteem and then the learning comes," says Ed Combs, a math teacher.

But undergirding it all is the key to making the school work: consistent discipline.

It's a foreign concept for students from homes where parents may not be around to enforce discipline and crowded schools where infractions can go unnoticed.

Which makes MacFarlane Park a crash course in Newtonian physics applied to misbehavior: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

"Until society teaches them to take responsibility, we have to teach them about the decisions that they make," says O'Brien, a 56-year-old Connecticut native with more than three decades of education experience.

It is Sade Lewis, a 13-year-old partial to clingy dresses, who tests the rules one recent morning. She refuses to take off a jacket that zips only halfway down in violation of dress code. Mom and teachers are summoned for a meeting.

"You're not stupid, but you're playing a game," O'Brien says to sulking Sade.

Sade is defiant in class, the teachers say. She refuses to follow directions, puts her head on her desk during lectures -- much as she did at Wilson Middle School pre-expulsion.

"I'll turn her over to the state," her mother, Katha Pollack, interjects. "I've got two grown children and she's the worst."

Emotions spiral and O'Brien returns the discussion to the concrete: the choices Sade wants to make. I need you to commit to good behavior, Sade.

Silence, followed by Sade's mumbled: I'll be good.

O'Brien's voice softens, her eyes implore.

"We care about you darlin'," she says. "If we didn't we wouldn't be here."

Tears. A tissue for Sade. Back to class.

For students like Sade, 13, there is still time to teach choices and consequences. For Tim Robbins, a red-headed 15-year-old trying his best to be hip-hop cool, though, O'Brien worries it's too late. His fits of anger fill several pages of referrals from Madison Middle School. His older sister dropped out at 16; his 16th birthday is a few months away.

He lands in O'Brien's office on a recent morning after angrily refusing to move his seat. "I can see the damn television from here," he exploded at Kathy Zambrano, the English teacher.

O'Brien tells him: "You don't tell my teacher what you're going to do and what you're not going to do. You need to make some choices, son." He is sent home for the day and returns with his stepfather for a conference. Three days later, Tim is back in the office for calling a teacher gay.

O'Brien plays her final card, short of expulsion. She picks up a phone book and scans the M's. She dials numbers until she finds the McDonald's where Tim works, his ticket to a new car.

A manager agrees to encourage Tim to stay in school. A minor victory.

"There is only so much that we can do," O'Brien says. "Ultimately, he can do what he wants so long as he is willing to live with the consequences."

* * *

MacFarlane Park can't reach every student, a fact O'Brien and her teachers accept. In Hillsborough, 30 percent of alternative school students never return to traditional schools. The district, like Pasco and Pinellas, does not keep track of the students who do return.

But MacFarlane Park is the kind of school, experts say, with the qualities needed for success: small classes, careful student monitoring and a clear and strict discipline code.

"You do get a bunch of angry kids in alternative schools," says Jack Wuest, the executive director of the Alternative Schools Network in Chicago. "But with the right staff who run the school the way it's supposed to be run, you can help these kids."

Elizabeth Bradford is not so sure.

Her daughter, Virginia, has always been hyperactive, she explains in a soft, West Virginia drawl in her tidy, North Tampa home. But at age 12, problems spiraled: She was caught with marijuana at Buchanan Middle School. She was sent to North Tampa Alternative School and came home with bawdy language and tough behavior -- when she came home at all.

Many nights, Virginia slipped away with her new friends, leaving her mother to search the neighborhood frantically, and eventually call the police.

As Bradford talks of the privileges she has taken from Virginia -- the door that came off her bedroom, the phone that is off-limits -- her voice takes on an anguished tone. "The school has done nothing but bring her down, and I don't know how to get her out of it," she says.

Across town, in a ranch house with a white picket fence, Cyrus' parents are also worried.

Because of his reckless joke about mints being the drug ecstasy, they say, he is now deprived of the advanced classes he took at Wilson Middle School. Combined with the stigma of expulsion, the episode has left Cyrus withdrawn and depressed -- a gloominess that lifted only after his parents successfully lobbied to have his term at MacFarlane Park shortened from two semesters to one.

"If this is the best the system can offer, then it's a shame," says his father, David Khanalizadeh.

Other parents see things differently. Jenny Younis, a hotel sales manager, says she panicked when her son Luis Rodriguez, 14, was removed from Roland Park Middle School for carrying a razor.

"I went crazy. I was yelling at the hearing master, saying this is wrong," she says. "Oh my god, my child doesn't belong in that program."'

But MacFarlane Park's teachers pay attention to him. They answer his questions. The classes are paced at his speed.

"It's been a blessing," she says. "I can see such a difference in him. For the first time in I don't know how long, he doesn't have failing grades. He likes it and has good things to say."

O'Brien and her teachers live for stories like that. The reality, though, is that for every success there are several big question marks.

Like Jamal and Jemel McIntyre, identical 11-year-old twins.

Their mother, a single parent, is a housekeeper at a Travelodge. The family is living temporarily at her mother's apartment in Robles Park, a rough and tumble place where she says the twins have learned thug-like behavior.

The alternative school is an antidote to the street-wise ideas they have picked up, she says. It is teaching them choices and consequences.

But are the lessons sinking in?

Recently, two police officers came to school looking for the twins. Along with some other neighborhood kids, they had beaten up a kid at the bus stop. Witnesses said Jamal had punched and thrown a shopping cart on him, and Jemel had done the kicking, which he denied.

So Jamal was banned from the bus.

"You work hard and come home and everyday it's something," their mother says.

She hopes the school can do more.

O'Brien makes no promises. "We are just a hose," she says. "They send them to us and we hose them down, telling them to pull their pants up, tuck in their shirts and say yes ma'am, no ma'am. Then they go back out there, their pants come down, their attitudes change and they're covered in muck all over again."

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