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Night High School: Another Chance for Students With Problems

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Colorado Springs--It's 9 o'clock, and nothing in Palmer High School's room 202 appears to be out of the ordinary. Students dressed in the universal teen-age uniform--jeans, Adidas, and down jackets--sit at tables, answering questions and writing paragraphs about a short story that they have just read.

A teacher moves about the room, posing questions to several students, helping another with her writing. Somewhere outside the classroom, muffled sounds occasionally echo through the empty halls as the maintenance staff goes about cleaning chores.

For most Colorado Springs teenagers, the school day ended hours before. But room 202 is not a typical classroom, nor are the "kids" typical high-school students. Two girls are mothers of infants, two others are pregnant. One boy is on probation following a robbery conviction. And several students hold down full-time jobs during the day to support themselves or their families.

Drop-Out Prevention

They are enrolled in a public high school that operates at night, a drop-out-prevention strategy begun last January by Palmer's principal, Lee Higgins.

Mr. Higgins became convinced of the need for such a program 10 years ago, when he realized how many students with the ability, the motivation, and the ambition to finish high school were dropping out for economic reasons.

"There were too many who were the only ones who could support the family after their parents had lost their jobs. They couldn't fit into any of our existing alternatives, which were all held during the day. It was actually one student who gave me the idea," says Mr. Higgins, ''when he asked, 'Isn't there any way I could get my credits at night?'"

"I harped on it for a few years," he recalled recently. Mr. Higgins's conviction led him to press his case with a doubtful central administration, and finally to form a committee within Palmer High School, one of the five senior high schools in District 11 in Colorado Springs.

"We drew up a proposal, pointing out the need for the program and how we saw it oper-ating, and finally succeeded in getting it on the school board's agenda," he explains. "The president of the board gave a very articulate presentation of all the reasons he had for voting against the program, but when it came to a vote, the board passed it 6 to 1."

The night school is a school within a school under the careful supervision of Mr. Higgins, who works closely with the program's coordinator, Jack M. Terry. Together, the two interviewed and hired four teachers within the district to make up the night-school faculty.

After receiving approval from the Colorado Department of Education, the program got underway last January. Classes meet Monday through Thursday from 5:30 P.M. until 9:30 P.M., giving teachers Fridays to plan and to work with any students who need extra help.

Students enrolled in the full four-evening program attend two classes nightly, each an hour and 50 minutes in length, so that by the end of the week they cover all subjects offered. These include science, math, English, history, and a combined class in health and physical education.

Credits Awarded

The night-school students, Mr. Terry notes, receive the same amount of instructional time in each subject as their day-school counter-parts. The longer class periods also enable students who take only one or two courses to compress a full week's work in a particular subject into two rather than four evenings. In its first year of operation, the alternative school has awarded full or partial high-school credits to 75 students.

In many ways, the night-school curriculum resembles that of the district's regular high schools. But the emphasis and some of the structural elements in the night school differ slightly from the day program.

"Survival skills"--the ability to write and speak so that no one will misunderstand, to analyze situations, and to be logical and rational--are stressed by the night-school faculty members, who believe these skills to be the most valuable their students can gain.

Thus, the evening students are taught such skills as how to write a resume, fill out an application, make funeral arrangements, balance a checkbook, and answer such questions as "can credit hurt you?" "what is good nutrition?" and "what are my rights?"

"We're not so hung up on content," says Mary Bernard, a history teacher who recently left the program. "We are more interested in helping them learn where to go for answers."

"We go more slowly," adds Mr. Terry, "but the content is as stiff."

The students, however, do not have homework. "Lots of our kids work and wouldn't get it done," explains Mr. Terry. "They have family and emotional problems that would interfere. And these kids are behind in skills and need our constant guidance."

The constant guidance these students receive is the principal difference between the night and day programs. And the students seem to be well aware of this difference.

"Teachers here really help you," says one student. "They explain things better," adds another.

Rules and Regulations

To be accepted into the program, every applicant has to be interviewed by Mr. Terry, who explains the rules and regulations and determines whether he or she is suited for the night school. Some of the night-school candidates are recommended by their teachers, guidance counselors, or principals; others learn about the program on their own. All are treated on a first-come-first-served basis, and are drawn from the district's five senior high schools.

A previously poor record does not disqualify a candidate, and the only students he has turned down so far, Mr. Terry says, are 19- and 20-year-olds who need more credits than they will realistically be able to earn before they turn 21, the age at which students no longer qualify for a free public education in Colorado.

Students attend night school for a variety of reasons. Some combine night classes with a full-day school schedule in order to make up a credit they have lost for reasons ranging from sickness to just "goofing off." Or they may simply be impatient to get through high school more quickly; last year one student attended the night school and managed to graduate in less than three years.

'Happy Days' Atmosphere

Others are there because they cannot tolerate what Mr. Higgins describes as the "Happy Days" atmosphere of regular school. They have no interest in football, cheerleading, bands, or dances. Those who must work, who are faced with serious financial realities, or who are responsible for a young child are impatient with what they see as "a lot of foolishness," he pointed out.

"We have a lot of 17- and 18-year-olds who are simply on their own,'' said Mr. Terry. "At least 30 percent have left home, or their parents have thrown them out. These kids won't buy the idea that education is good because it makes you literate. It's 'give me a skill, give me money for that skill.' They are financially oriented. They will not buy the literacy rationale."

The teachers say most of the students in the night school are of average intelligence but have "amazingly inadequate skills." Most have been in some kind of difficulty and know, as one teacher put it, "that this is their last chance."

What characterizes the students more than anything else, the teachers agree, is a poor attitude toward school and toward learning. "They've had truancy problems, attendance problems, discipline problems, academic problems," Mr. Terry says. "They have gotten behind because they have so many variables against them. In a large class, they are forgotten. They don't get the help they need, so these problems lead to truancy. Then they drop out or get kicked out."

In the night school, however, most of the students do make progress, the adults associated with the program assert. The majority, says Danielle Woodward, the English teacher, cannot write a complete and correct paragraph when they enter the program, but "they do pick it up fairly fast."

The mathematics and science teacher, Jackie Provenzano, who has some students who are just learning to multiply while others are working on advanced algebra problems, agrees with her colleague.

"Last year," she says, "the district supervi-sor encouraged me to have the kids use calculators for math, saying if they hadn't learned the basic skills by now, they wouldn't. But I've found that they do learn, and no calculators are allowed here until I see that they've mastered basic skills."

The school is "like an adult-education class," adds Mrs. Provenzano. "We don't treat them as students are treated during the daytime--like youngsters. If a student does something wrong, I just comment on it after class. I had one student who kept leaving class, so afterwards I just said, 'I would appreciate it if you do not do that anymore. I don't like it."'

Friendly Atmosphere

The night-school teachers structure the program carefully to make students who are wary of school feel at home. The atmosphere is warm, friendly, and relaxed. Classes are small, and even though there is a waiting list of 30 students, the enrollment is limited to 60 at a time; classes are never larger than 15--an unusual situation in a district of 30,000 students.

Students sit around tables working on individual projects or perch on lab stools doing experiments or watching filmstrips. They may talk to each other, get up at any time, ask questions, have their work graded immediately.

The teachers insist that grading the students' work immediately is essential. "That's their greatest reward," says Robert N. Otto, the history teacher, "to see that someone is noticing."

"In regular classes," says Mrs. Provenzano, "they'd wait several days and then get back an 'F' paper. Here, they can see you reading it in front of them, and you can always find something good to say, like 'This is good, but you know, if you would put a period behind each sentence and capitalize the first letter, it would be even better."'

The faculty members make a point of establishing rapport with the students, and a genuine sense of camaraderie seems to exist between the two groups. Although it is clear who is in charge, the teachers avoid appearing authoritarian. They ask a lot of rhetorical questions: "Do you really deserve 30 points for that poster?" "Would you be better off outside of class this evening?" "This quiz is worth 25 points. Now be realistic. Will you get all 25?"

But behind the casual atmosphere, rules are strict and specific: No drugs, alcohol, extortion, fighting, gambling, profanity, or rude or disruptive behavior. The teachers say that even though almost all of the students have been discipline problems in the past, there is little trouble with discipline in the night program. In an entire year, only two fights have broken out. "But it's freaky when things like that happen," said Mrs. Provenzano. "It's so unusual. Our kids don't even have yelling fights usually."

Contract Signed

"We do things in the night school that we can't do in the day," Mr. Higgins notes. "A kid signs a contract--and if he's under 18, his parents sign it, too--indicating that they understand these are the rules and agreeing to leave if they can't abide by them. I'd love to be able to do that in the day school."

Because the participants are over 16--the legal age at which students can stop school in Colorado--the night-school staff members can drop a student at any time. That, as Mr. Terry puts it, "gives us certain leverage."

The teachers carefully monitor tardiness and absences, for example. Every evening after class, they gather around a laminated board on which attendance is tallied. Any student who has five unexcused absences and is not in contact with the school with an explanation is dropped from the program. Someone from the waiting list is moved in.

Students who are not absent more than three times in nine weeks receive half a credit if their work is satisfactory. If they are absent, they lose credit. In this way, the teachers believe that the students learn to take responsibility for their actions.

40-Percent Attrition Rate

In the course of a semester, approximately 100 students register for the night school; of those, about 60 honor their commitments.

"I used to be terribly frustrated because we had a 40-percent attrition rate," says Mrs. Provenzano. "But while they were in day school, this population had a 100-percent attrition rate. And I think of the kids we lose; circumstances just don't permit them to continue. I think for a lot of them, the bad attitudes toward school and learning have been so ingrained that it takes more than four hours a night to change them."

"Many more than 50, 60, or 70 percent do stay," emphasizes Mr. Terry. "They succeed in changing their behavior, and that's not easy to do. I'm not saying that night school is a panacea," the director cautioned. "But even if a kid doesn't see it all the way through, maybe he'll get something that he didn't have before, something that will make it easier for him to get a better job. It's no guarantee, but it's so much better than staying at home watching TV. At least they're getting a few more doors opened to them."

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