In December, Catalyst visited three alternative schools for disruptive students. The schools shared a commitment to building relationships with students and parents, but their educational programs varied widely. Here’s what we saw.

Lawrence Hall Youth Services was founded after the Civil War as an Episcopal orphanage for boys. Today the agency serves more than 1,500 children and families through a variety of programs, two of which work with disruptive students from the Chicago public schools.

At its therapeutic day school, situated in a grassy campus in Ravenswood, classes rarely exceed 8 students, and each class has both a teacher and a teacher assistant. Students follow a carefully designed behavior management program that awards points for completing assignments, following a dress code and performing other specific tasks. Teachers constantly praise students to reinforce good behavior.

The atmosphere is calm; the educational program, exciting. For example, art is taught by a Golden Apple Award winner. And vocational offerings include a print shop that produces, among other products, four-color Christmas cards—for sale; and an in-school restaurant, Tryme’s. Unlike many alternative schools, this one is accredited by both the state and the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges.

One 8th-grader who is preparing to graduate and enroll in a public high school, says, “I think this is better, to tell you the truth. It’s mighty fun.”

Meanwhile, in a downtown high-rise, Lawrence Hall’s Project SKIL is struggling with discipline. The Project SKIL program was developed several years ago to offer wards of the state and Public Aid recipients GED preparation and job training, but it now accepts disruptive referrals and others as well.

“The teachers, they’re great—they work with the students,” says a girl who was referred for disruptive behavior at Lane Technical High School. “On the other hand, these students, they are really disruptive. Some of us from the better schools, we want to do right so we can get out of here. [But] they want to gangbang and all this stuff. They just want to do wrong.”

Teacher assistant Derrick Gibbs says the school’s behavior modification system is still under construction. Although a point system has been attempted, he says, “We really haven’t defined it all the way.”

The girl from Lane notes another problem: Some classes are not structured to accommodate the wide variation in students’ academic levels. “We have kids in my class who don’t know fractions, then we have kids like me who were in geometry,” she says. “The teacher, she tries to teach something everybody can handle. She’s teaching fractions, something we had a long time ago, and they’re having for the first time. It’s really a waste of time to me.”

However, Lawrence Hall’s long track record in both education and social service bodes well for working out the kinks.

For most of its 25 years, Aunt Martha’s Youth Service has worked with troubled teens and runaways. But “alternative school was a total breakaway,” says Linda Duckworth, principal of the alternative school the agency opened a year ago in a Lawndale two-flat. Before, she says, “education stuff was pretty minimal.”

Some raw edges show. The first principal and two teachers quit before June. In December, the back stairs and porch are unheated, though the classrooms and offices are warm and pleasantly decorated. Case manager Willie Tubbs says that when they moved in, the building was “nothing but a big dump.”

The school’s educational approach also is in the works. “We are in the process of trying to develop this into a Quality School,” says Duckworth, referring to the work of psychiatrist William Glasser. For example, teacher Salandra Crockett addresses conflicts in her classroom by stressing students’ power to choose different ways of reacting to a situation, a key element in Glasser’s theory.

But there are serious shortcomings, say other staff members. “We’ve had no meeting where we laid out expectations and consequences” for student behavior, says one. This staffer adds that no one on staff has had training in working with children with behavior disorders or learning disabilities.

The day Catalyst visited, only 15 of the school’s some 30 students were present. Crockett’s earth science class, on the second floor, had only two students. Word came up from the first floor that students were throwing books.

“It’s some bullshit, man,” says one student about the school, adding that it “wasted your time.”

Yet some parents and students rave about Aunt Martha’s. Parent Lynn Allen prefers it to the public school her son attended. “When he was going to his former school, I took him to the clinic and found out he was smoking weed. Since he’s been there I haven’t had problems with that. … They have no security guards, and they have that much control.”

“You’ve got people telling you, Don’t go down that road, try another one,” says junior Edward Washington. “Teachers like Ms. Crockett and Chris downstairs, they’re the best teachers I ever had. The two big guys sit down and talk with you, too.”

The two big guys are case managers Tubbs and Jerome Rhoades, who clearly carry more than physical weight around the school. Both men have worked at group homes for boys. Much of their time is spent troubleshooting at school and making home visits to absent students and their families. “Mr. Rhoades, he’s helped my son a lot,” says Allen.

But case management alone doesn’t make a school. “I feel like we have been abandoned” by our sponsoring agency, says the anonymous staffer, who added, “Get Paul Vallas out here—he should see it for himself.”

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