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In Philadelphia, school officials and students are squaring off in court over the issue. A group primarily composed of inner-city students, assigned to alternative education under a 2002 state law designed to improve school safety, has filed a class action to overturn it. The sweeping statute requires alternative placements for those who commit a range of offenses--whether in school or not--after they have successfully completed sentences in juvenile-detention facilities. The students say the rule punishes those whose misdeeds weren't violent, as well as those who did nothing wrong at school. The plaintiffs also fear they will be banished permanently. "The statute doesn't provide clear timetables or means by which those students can get back to regular schools," says their attorney, Marsha Levick. One student, who may sign on as a plaintiff, recently emerged from two months in boot camp for car theft and resents not being able to return to the regular classroom. "When you go to that [alternative] school, people know you did something wrong," he says. "I feel like I'm being punished twice."
But educators like Gwen Morris, executive director of transition and alternative education for Philadelphia's school district, say the counseling and academic help students receive in rehabilitative schools lead to smoother transitions back to mainstream schools. "It's an opportunity to give the highest-risk students the support services they need to make their re-entry work," she says. A similar philosophy has worked well in Los Angeles, where the County Office of Education operates 70 of these schools. They combine individual attention with stringent academic standards and an insistence on personal responsibility. Students must sign a contract stipulating that they will behave.
Mujeres y Hombres Nobles, the oldest alternative high school for troubled kids in Los Angeles County, has been a model around the country. It serves 75 students, mostly Latinos from nearby East L.A. Their infractions range from truancy to firearm possession, drug selling and sexual assault. There are no window bars, security guards, metal detectors or pat-downs at the front door--just a friendly receptionist and a big, brightly colored bulletin board welcoming all visitors. "If we installed security devices, we'd be telling our kids that we don't trust them," says Cathleen Corella, the principal, who proudly reports that there have been just five fights at the school in 10 years.
Mujeres' classes cover all major subjects. The faculty-student ratio is comparatively low, and teachers design rigorous instruction to help students bolster weak academic skills and pass standardized proficiency exams. "Nothing is watered down here," says Corella. Only students who get Cs or better, complete their after-school counseling programs and maintain good behavior and attendance records are allowed to apply for readmission to their school districts.