The return of troublemakers highlights program flaws

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For the past year, schools repeatedly have heaved sighs of relief as they sent serious troublemakers to newly available alternative schools for disruptive students. Then it was out of sight, out of mind—for little information filtered back.

Now that the troublemakers are beginning to return to their home schools, consternation is replacing relief in some quarters.

Jerome Rhoades, a case manager at Aunt Martha’s Youth Service, which runs one of the alternative schools, describes the first transition hearing he attended as “a major battle. This particular principal, he did not want to let this kid back in. He was basically hard as nails. I thought to myself, ‘Jesus, this is not by any means the worst kid.'”

According to Rhoades, the principal had to be taken aside and pressured into accepting the student. “I heard some voices getting loud,” he says. “It sounded like [the principal] had no choice at that point—his decision had changed.”

Aunt Martha’s, which has served up to 45 students at a time, has returned four to public schools.

Public school personnel agree that trust has been a problem. “There are several alternative schools … different schools with different philosophies,” notes Andrew Denton, dean of students at Kenwood Academy High School, which referred six disruptive students to alternative schools last year. “I’m not familiar with any of the schools. What are they doing? What kind of teachers do they have? The [public] schools do have a blind spot.”

Parents also have complained about a lack of information—regarding both the referral of their children and the schools themselves.

“Families are given no information,” says Margery Doss, director of education at Lawrence Hall Youth Services, which has two programs taking disruptive referrals. “I have had mothers come and sit in classes here. They were sure the school was not safe—there were murderers and felons here, and their baby, well, he was caught with a gun but he was protecting himself.”

Thus, alternative schools have had to work with parents as well.

A mixed bag

As Kenwood’s Denton notes, there are a variety of alternative schools for disruptive students. A number are therapeutic day schools that already had been working with students identified as having learning disabilities, behavior disorders, and/or emotional problems. Generally, these schools are well established and accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

Other alternative schools are new ventures of established schools that serve returning dropouts. “We’re used to dealing with very difficult students,” says Meryl Domina, director of Sullivan House Alternative High School, which now serves both dropout and disruptive students. “We’ve had students who were court-ordered to attend our school.” Disruptive students at Sullivan House posted a 90 percent attendance rate last June, she notes.

But a few of the new schools, like the Nelson Mandela School for Excellence, started from scratch. Mandela and at least one other alternative school for disruptive students were sponsored by social service agencies that worked with youth in avenues other than formal schooling.

Mandela, the only alternative school whose contract has been revoked by the board, may have been an extreme example of the problems they can face.

The school had high staff turnover its first semester, and lost its lease amid allegations of disciplinary trouble as well as financial problems. Central office hired Arthur Andersen to conduct an audit of the school’s finances; results were unavailable at press time.

Last March, the School Reform Board hired alternative schools expert Tony Baez to evaluate all the alternative schools, both dropout and disruptive. His research team gathered data last spring and summer, when some schools were less than 6 months old. An interim report, issued in August, raised more questions than it answered about the schools’ quality.

The report ranked alternative schools on a three-tiered scale, but did not say what criteria had been used. Eight of the 14 alternative schools for disruptive youth were put in the lowest category, “needs monitoring and assistance.” However, Nelson Mandela was put in the middle category, “has potential.” The report also charged that some programs serving disruptive youth were trying to “break the kids” before teaching them.

Alternative schools believe the study was biased. “I was angry at just the whole slant of the way [the report] was presenting issues, especially concerning disruptive [schools],” says Doss of Lawrence Hall. She criticized the questionnaire she received as part of the research process for focusing on dropout programs and treating disruptive programs as an afterthought.

Baez agrees that the study was geared toward dropout programs, but he questions a cornerstone of Chicago’s program for disruptive students.

Baez says his researchers were dismayed by the number of programs that were focused more on controlling students’ behavior than on educating them. “There are some [students] who need to be in a controlled setting. But is that a school?” he asks. “Chicago needs to decide whether they want to contract with an agency that wants to control kids. There have to be standards for entering into contracts with programs for disruptive students. Education should be the center of what is happening there.”

December visits by Catalyst to three programs serving disruptive students revealed wide differences among them, even at sites managed by the same agency.

In September, Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas moved the alternative schools program, which serves both dropouts and disruptive students, from an office dealing with high schools to the Office of Specialized Services. Since then, Renee Grant-Mitchell, deputy chief of Specialized Services, has been working to address the problems in the fledgling program. “My focus has been on the disruptive [schools],” she says. “They’re newer. They have some inherent problems the dropout programs just don’t have.”

To help bridge the communication gap between public schools and the 14 alternative schools for disruptive students, Grant-Mitchell has assigned a Specialized Services staffer to each of the system’s six regions; this liaison will visit schools for disruptive students and give input on where individual students should be placed.

Public schools also have been required to designate an “adult advocate” to monitor the progress of returning students for at least six months.

“We did have a couple of situations where the school said ‘Oh, my God, no’ [to a returning student],” Grant-Mitchell acknowledges. “We sat down with them and identified the student’s progress and asked them to identify an adult advocate. That seemed to have minimized the schools’ resistance.”

In mid-January, she appointed case managers from Specialized Services to provide technical assistance to the alternative schools on an as-needed basis. “We really see a need to monitor them,” she says, adding that some already have made program changes based on the interim report by Tony Baez.

Whatever questions they may have about the quality of alternative schools, most principals, disciplinarians and School Patrol officers CATALYST interviewed praised the program for providing an option for students who need a last chance. Some say the threat of removal has had a deterrent effect on their students. Only a few complained about the paperwork involved in making referrals; most found the process surprisingly efficient.

“I have been delighted,” said Janice Ollarvia, principal of Fenger High, who praises the promptness with which referrals are handled. “I think I’m the queen of referrals.”

Fenger is in the top 10 referring high schools, which together have sent more than half the 292 high schoolers referred to alternative schools. Meanwhile, as of October, 20 high schools had not referred any students.

At Whitney Young, no student had yet met the criteria, according to assistant principal Jerry Lattyak. At Foreman, dean of students Richard Kuna says the school’s referrals were “turned down because we didn’t do our paperwork. You have to have quite a bit of paperwork in back.”

The skewed distribution of referrals—plus allegations that at least one school used the program to clean out troublemakers rather than address its own discipline problems—have raised some eyebrows.

“I’m for alternative schools, but I’m not for leading the pack,” says Donald Pittman, interim principal of Marshall High, who arrived after Marshall’s first round of referrals. His goal is to “improve discipline and cut down the number of students we refer.”

South Shore High School, which led the city in referrals last school year, has referred no students this year. Last year was the first year Principal Frank Horton and Assistant Principal Joyce Toran were in charge of the school. “We had to set an example,” Toran says.

Grant-Mitchell believes that some public schools may have underutilized the program, but her attention is focused on possible overreferrals. Her office has begun monitoring referrals from schools and has changed the forms to allow for a more thorough evaluation of each student.

“Now we’re looking at medical records and at cumulative record cards to get a more holistic view of the student,” says Grant-Mitchell. “I’m very interested in making sure we don’t have a dumping-ground effect.”