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'Project Option' in Delaware District

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Newark, Del.--In this small Atlantic seaboard town, dominated by a massive Chrysler plant and the sprawling University of Delaware campus, a modest but persistent struggle is being waged against violence in the schools.

But it does not involve converting school buildings into armed camps or turning unruly students out into the streets.

Rather, the 15,000-student Christina School District has made an unorthodox effort to help its most violent, most destructive, most troubled students.

Project Option, housed in an narrow, bunker-like school-district building just down the road from Newark High School, takes students who are on the brink of expulsion--those who have assaulted teachers, carried weapons into classrooms, or vandalized school property--and offers them what is, in effect, a last chance.

"We have the kids that no one else wants," said Michael T. Carr, who has been the program's director since it was begun by the district six years ago with a $50,000 federal grant. "They have failed in school, failed at home, and failed in the community. If we were not around, they would be out in the street."

Dearth of Programs

A statewide lack of programs for disruptive students was noted in a recently released report by the Delaware Criminal Justice Planning Commission, an oversight body mandated by state statute and comprising various representatives of the state's juvenile justice system. The report noted that in the state's northern school districts, only 15.9 percent of the disruptive students likely to need an alternative education were enrolled in such programs.

The report also concluded that from 3 percent to 10 percent of all secondary students in those districts need alternative schooling as a result of disruptive behavior.

That figure is too high, according to the Christina School District's superintendent, George V. Kirk. But he notes that his district could triple the number of students enrolled in Project Option. There are currently 53 students ranging from age 12 to age 21 in the program.

The philosophy behind Project Option, says Mr. Carr, is to kindle in its students a sense of responsibility and self-confidence, two qualities he says are lacking in nearly all of the young people who have gone through the program.

"We are dealing with kids who have no sense of community," Mr. Carr said. "They are sociopathic. They cannot follow rules or maintain relationships. And they feel that everyone else is pulling their strings. We are trying to give these kids a sense of control over themselves."

Mr. Carr says that 85 percent of Project Option's students are male, 15 percent are female--a ratio he says reflects the relative amount of disruptive behavior caused in the schools by each group.

When the Option students arrive on a special school bus each day at their white cinderblock alternative school, they enter a highly structured program, where setting and meeting goals, however modest, are the main objectives. Students sign "contracts" to complete a book, to help another student, or even, in some cases, merely to come to school every day. As students fulfill their contracts, they earn more freedom and give themselves more "options."

The students' goals are represented by the multi-colored branches of a crepe-paper tree that covers an entire study-room wall.

Mr. Carr claims that 70 percent of Project Option's "graduates" either return to and finish high school or leave for steady jobs. The 30 percent of the students who drop out of the program "really bother" him, he said.

Unlike a Regular School

Mr. Carr, a psychologist who oversees a $200,000 budget--which the district took over from the federal government in 1979--and a staff of five special-education teachers chosen from applicants from within the Christina school district, stresses that the program consciously avoids being like a regular school.

The students, many of whom have severe learning and emotional disabilities in addition to their behavioral problems, and whose academic abilities range from the first-grade to the twelfth-grade level, are given two-and-a-half hours of academic instruction and behavioral counseling daily.

To avoid potential problems created by idleness, Mr. Carr says, there are no breaks during the in-school session. This is followed, in many cases, by off-campus job training offered by one of the Option teachers.

The students are in the process of building their own vocational-training building, in part with a $14,000 solar-energy grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Teachers do not lecture in front of a class. Instead, there is constant individual tutoring--made possible by a 5-to-1 student-teacher ratio and split sessions--at tables arranged randomly in the school's two study rooms.

Counseling Sessions

Students' academic work, much of it remedial, is frequently interrupted for individual or group counseling sessions.

The teachers constantly prod and encourage students, some of whom are restive and openly rebellious. Others slump sullenly behind their books. There is an uneasy tension in the rooms.

"It would be foolish for this program to be like a regular school," Mr. Carr said. "These kids are here because they have failed in regular schools."

Said a student who was placed in the Option Program after going on a violent rampage at Glasgow High School: "You get all the help you need here; they care."

Various Kinds of Help

Mr. Carr, who was a 27-year-old assistant principal at Bishop Reilly High School in Queens, N.Y. before being asked to set up the alternative program six years ago, believes Project Option is unique in its integration of academic, vocational, and counseling help.

"It's not unusual for four or five public and private agencies to be involved with a kid without knowing what each other is doing," he said. "If we had more coordination of youth services, we could save a great deal of money."

Another recent report by the Delaware Criminal Justice Planning Commission made the same point, asserting that the state's system for dealing with disruptive youths--with more than 300 agencies involved--is "extremely fragmented," resulting in "overlap, duplication, and gaps in service."

Students remain in the Option program--which runs only during the regular school year--for an average of 10 months. But there is no limit to how long a student can stay, and some have been enrolled at the alternative school for nearly three years, Mr. Carr said. He noted that one such long-time student inexplicably showed marked improvement in his behavior and has recently enrolled in a local community college.

The average age of the students in the program is 16 to 17, higher than in most alternative programs, which tend, Mr. Carr says, to give up on students before they reach that age.

Benefits Community

Mr. Carr contends that placing disruptive students in Project Option, rather than simply expelling them, benefits the schools and the general community in less disruption, lower crime rates, and smaller unemployment rolls. But he is realistic about the success of the Option program.

"This [program] is no panacea," he says. "It is not as if these kids come in here and we show them a slide show and they are all better. It takes a lot of time and a lot of work."

Adds Audrey McMeekin, a teacher in Project Option: "You have to have a sense of humor to work here."

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