Outside a two-story office building across the street from DePaul University’s Fullerton campus, teenagers press a button and wait to be buzzed in to school. As they straggle up to the second-floor classrooms, Principal Dora Phillips greets each one with a friendly hello. To those who are tardy, she offers an exaggerated “Good Morning.” To those returning from an absence, it’s a sincere, “We missed you yesterday.”

Opened in fall 1997, Crawford First Education is a far cry from the public schools where its students got in trouble—mainly high schools in Districts 2 and 3, like Westinghouse Vocational and Manley. Its student body is small, only 58 students. For its enrollment, it has a relatively large staff—in addition to Phillips, five teachers, two teacher’s assistants, two case workers and an office manager. Phillips says everyone but the office manager helps teach.

As Phillips demonstrates each morning, Crawford strives to make its students feel welcome. “We call every student who doesn’t come to class,” she notes.

But Crawford is strict, too. Rules and expectations are printed on large posters and displayed near the school’s entrance.

“For the types of students we have, it has to be very structured. It has to be very clear,” says Kevin Cool, the director of development for Alternative Behavioral Services, the Norfolk, Va.-based company that runs Crawford.

Every day, staff check arriving students with a portable metal detector and look through their book bags. The students have to earn the staff’s trust, Phillips explains.

Gang signs are forbidden, as are hats. “Often students put gang signs on their papers,” says Phillips. “The teachers return them with the sign marked over with a black marker. The first time they get a warning.” The second time, a case worker meets with the student to discuss the problem. Copies of the papers are kept in the student’s file to document his behavior.

The Chicago Police Department trained staff to recognize the drawings, colors and signs gangs use. The police fax updates to the school monthly. “It might be one pant leg turned up, the other down. A hat turned to a 2 o’clock tilt,” she says.

Students also go through a highly structured, four-phase behavior modification program, which is based on rewards. In Phase 1, students must be accompanied by a staff member “at all times” and are not allowed to participate in any outside activities, Phillips explains. “The staff escorts students to the washroom and checks for graffiti before and after a student uses the washroom.” she says.

Every student carries a “Weekly Success Plan,” which lists behavior goals such as listening and following directions, communicating appropriately with others, and using self-control at all times. After each class, the teacher notes which goals the student achieved. Following four consecutive weeks of acceptable behavior, a student moves into Phase 2, which allows him or her to participate in field trips, go to the park, order in food and watch movies during lunch.

Expectations, rewards

To retain the privileges of Phase 2, a student must act as a leader, be in class every day and arrive pretty much on time—he or she can be late a total of 15 minutes each week.

Phrase 3 brings more responsibility and more rewards, such as “passing through the hall without an adult and a weekly lunch out,” Phillips says. “They usually go to Demon Dogs hot dog stand, DePaul’s cafeteria or around the corner to a Mexican restaurant.” When students are out of the building, a staff member always escorts them, Phillips emphasizes.

In Phase 4, students have nearly the same privileges as students in a regular school. For example, they are allowed to go out alone for lunch two days a week. Midway through the fall semester, Phillips says all of her Phase 4 students have returned on time from their outside lunches.

Students who land at Crawford because of repeated Discipline Code violations rather than because of expulsion must reach Phase 4 before the staff will recommend they return to their home schools. Expelled students attend for a set period of time.

“Most of the staff has worked in the inner city before, but not exclusively with at-risk students,” says Phillips, who worked with that population at a charter school in Minnesota.

Fowler, the English teacher, taught two years in a parochial school in Ohio and three in a school in suburban Cleveland, which had a similar student body. She describes her year at Crawford as “by far the most rewarding.”

Initially, she dreaded teaching Emerson and Thoreau. “I thought it would be way over their heads. [Instead] our class discussion was so amazing,” she says, shaking her head. The students were able to draw parallels between the themes of the writings, which dealt with conformity and non-conformity, and their own lives. “They were so open. They could see the compassion in each other’s faces. They [saw] each other in a different light.”

Crawford’s staff, she adds, is “the most dedicated staff I have ever worked with.” Most members are young, and only one has a child; that helps, she says, because they have the time to do the job required. Fowler, who is unmarried, notes she can put in extra hours because “I don’t have to juggle roles.”

Late hours

Many staff members stay until 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. doing “catch-ups, counseling, a lot of follow-ups,” Phillips says.

When hiring, Crawford didn’t target young teachers, but the school did want people “who are able to rejuvenate themselves at the end of a long day,” Cool says. That, plus being a team player, are the qualities needed to work successfully with these students, he says.

The staff meets daily after students have left. If something significant happens with a student in one teacher’s class, he tells the rest of the staff, and they discuss how to prevent the incident from re-occurring, Phillips says. Because there’s a lot of team-teaching, staff members also meet to plan the next day’s lessons, she adds.

The day Catalyst visited, Phillips combined her World Literature class with teacher Fowler’s English class, so the students could practice two plays. Both revolved around moral dilemmas; one featured a hit-and-run accident, the other underage drinking.

In addition to English and World Literature, the school offers credit courses in math, consumer education, art appreciation, and health and physical education. It also teaches keyboarding in a computer room that has four computers.

Gang affiliation is “a constant problem,” says Phillips, estimating that 80 percent of Crawford students are gang members. “We understand they need to be in a gang for protection,” she says, but students are told, “This is a safe zone, a neutral zone.”

Their life outside the school is a different story. They’ve seen many of their friends die, Fowler marvels. “The way we talk about how the bridesmaids looked at a wedding, they’ll talk about how someone looked in a casket.”

Phillips says that the school tackles gang affiliation through the back door. “We try to get them off drugs, off alcohol, before we work with getting them out of a gang, because a kid will look at the practical things: ‘I won’t have money. I won’t be safe.'”

Parent-student workshops

Last year, the police held one training session on drugs for students and three on drugs and alcohol for staff. The School Board or probation officers help the school get students into substance abuse programs, says Crawford counselor Ron Collins.

In addition to individual counseling, Collins runs workshops for both students and their parents. Topics have included peaceful parenting, “New techniques for raising today’s teens,” and career assistance, “Help you and your teen maximize your skills.”

Collins has a degree in business administration and previously sold insurance. Before coming to Crawford, he worked at Ada S. McKinley and South Central community services, two other social service agencies that run safe schools.

Last year, Crawford had one of the best attendance rate of the city’s safe schools: 77 percent. Of the 10 to 12 students who typically are absent every day, about half have a verifiable excuse— they are either in court or in the juvenile detention center. “Sometimes it shows up in the Chicago Public School’s computer that the student is in the Audy Home, and CPS notifies us,” Phillips notes.

Often, a student’s behavior in the school bears no resemblance to that described in his records, says Phillips.

Fowler thinks that’s because “here they’re accepted, they’re respected, they’re loved.”

‘I’m not ready’

At the end of each semester, says Phillips, “We ask the students who are succeeding, ‘Do you think you are ready? Do you want us to recommend that you should return to your [previous] school?'” While some are eager to return to old friends and school activities not available at a safe school, others want to stay, she says, because they fear being pulled into old bad habits.

Some will say, “I’m not ready to stand against the tide,” Phillips says. Others have said, “My principal hated me.” In these cases, Crawford will work with the board and another school to arrange a transfer. Sometimes it happens; sometimes it doesn’t. “No principal wants to take someone else’s problem,” Phillips remarks.

If another school can’t be found, the board might let the student remain at the safe school if he is near graduation. Other options are enrollment in a dropout or G.E.D. program.

Crawford is one of four—soon to be five—alternative schools run by the for-profit Alternative Behavioral Services, which operates 47 other facilities for troubled youth and their families in 14 states.

Cool says school districts are attracted by the firm’s ability to “get something in place very fast.”

In Chicago, ABS had a free reign once the contract was signed. “Everything we did, from hiring to getting the building … was ours,” says Cool.

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