What happens to kids who misbehave so badly they get kicked out of public school? It used to be they disappeared from view and then limped through life without a high school diploma, which means they never really got far. But as more schools have become tough with the tough kids, a system for managing these potential dropouts has begun to emerge, giving kids like Eduardo a chance.
Sitting on a folding chair in his cap and gown, surrounded by proud friends and teachers, Eduardo, 18, looks like any other happy December graduate as he opens a gift-wrapped box containing a new watch. But only nine months ago, Eduardo, who doesn't want his last name published, was removed from a Los Angeles high school for what he calls "a lot of bad behavior," including truancy, failing grades and drug use. He was transferred to Northeast Juvenile Justice Center, an alternative school for troubled kids who have left the regular educational system. "It seemed like it was all over for me because I had messed up so much," says Eduardo. "But here I am graduating."
Facilities like Northeast Juvenile Justice Center have become a solution for school officials who want to get troublemaking students out of mainstream classrooms but are required by state law to educate them. The Department of Education says the number of schools for students who break the rules ballooned from 2,606 in the 1993-94 academic year to 4,818 in 2000-01.
The trend shows no sign of slowing. New York City's new schools chancellor, Joel Klein, unveiled last November a tougher disciplinary policy, the linchpin of which is "twilight schools" for disruptive students in each of the city's five boroughs. Klein also plans to increase the number of alternative facilities for the most serious offenders.
But with more problem students getting routed to alternative schools, education policymakers face a dilemma: should they continue to segregate these kids after they have been rehabilitated, or return them to mainstream classrooms despite the risk that the bad habits and old pressures that originally contributed to their problems will resurface? Many youngsters are eager to escape the ostracism of this breed of alternative ed. "A lot of kids and parents see it as one step away from being in jail," says Sunshine Sepulveda-Klus, who coordinates alternative-education programs in the Los Angeles Unified School District. "We've worked hard to change that impression, but there will always be that stigma." Though many school districts allow the students to apply for readmission into the regular system, most don't seem eager to take them back.