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A Place Where Teen-Agers in Trouble Learn 'To Deal With Themselves'

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Yorktown Heights, NY--The John F. Kennedy High School here in Westchester County is a special school, but the 200 students who attend it come from no special background.

Some come by way of pedigreed Northeastern boarding schools, others from the poorest of New York City's ghettos. Some are the children of close families, others are from broken homes. Many have been high achievers, but others are underachievers caught in a perpetual search for meaning and excitement.

But the diversity in socioeconomic backgrounds and academic abilities is secondary at this residential campus of The Phoenix House--one of the off-site educational programs operated by the New York City public schools. Its mission involves the two characteristics common to all its students--low self-esteem and its all-too-frequent consequence for troubled adolescents, drug use.

According to Peggy Picotte, vice president and director of public information for The Phoenix House, the students at John F. Kennedy High share one other characteristic: They are all enrolled in the program because they want to straighten out their lives.

At The Phoenix House, says Sidney Hargrave, a staff clinician, students "learn to deal with themselves--who they are, what they're about.'' In the process, he adds, they go through changes. "What we try to get them to do is accept those changes, not to run from them," says Mr. Hargrave. "Changing and growing are part of life."

Six Facilities

The Phoenix House was founded in 1967 by five former heroin users who wanted to help others overcome drug dependencies. Begun as a New York City agency located on West 73rd Street in Manhattan, the project has grown into one of the country's foremost institutions dealing with youth drug problems.

Today, the Phoenix House Foundation, directed by Mitchell S. Rosenthal, is a private entity financed with federal, state, and private grants and contributions. It operates six facilities, including the4John F. Kennedy High School and a residential treatment program in Santa Ana, Calif.

Together, these facilities annually screen 3,000 to 4,000 youths who have experienced a wide range of drug problems. Phoenix House sites are kept strictly drug-free; their core objective, in the words of one staff member, is "to change more than behavior--to change attitude."

Drug-Free Program

The high school is housed in a former Jesuit seminary on 140 acres of verdant land. Students can enter the program at any time during the year, and often do so after sporadic attendance at or abrupt departures from other schools.

Those applying to the school, which serves grades 9 through 12, are screened by a panel of Phoenix House officials who take into consideration a prospective student's drug habit as well as his or her psychiatric, academic, and home conditions. Those accepted, say Phoenix House officials, must be committed to remaining drug-free while at the school.

Tuition for New York students is paid by the state's drug-abuse-treatment fund; out-of-state students must pay $1,000 a month, according to officials. But, Ms. Picotte notes, "nobody is ever turned away for lack of money."

Rare Level of Concern

Under the direction of the school's new president, Philip E. McCurdy, classes are conducted by teachers certified to teach in New York City public schools. Some, like Bill Nicholson, taught at The Phoenix House's campus in Manhattan before coming here to Yorktown Heights. Most of the others taught in city classrooms and have received special training from Phoenix House staff members.

The high school runs on a five-cycle year (two cycles per semester, and one cycle during the summer), and, through individualized instruction, adjusts students' academic pace to their individual academic needs. The school's curriculum is a modified version of that set by the New York State Board of Regents.

The school also offers hands-on training in media, printing, and culinary arts--potential vocations for students once they leave the school--and Red Cross-authorized courses in cardiopulmonary resuscitation are available.

Twice a week, there are writers' workshops, held in a well-stocked, well-used library where, beneath bay windows, a replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theater stands on display.

Yet, the crucial ingredient at Kennedy, according to observers of the program, is a rare degree of caring professionalism on the part of the adult staff, which includes 29 administrators and teachers and 12 clinicians.

As one English teacher patiently challenges her students, "You've fought me through Steinbeck, through Thurber, through Russell Baker. Now fight me through A Separate Peace."

Each year, approximately 66 percent of the school's students successfully complete the Phoenix House program, according to officials. This means they have progressed to the point at which they can either graduate or return to a regular public school.

The remaining 34 percent drop out of the program, officials say. By comparison, about 38 percent of the students entering the New York City public schools fail to finish, according to city estimates.

'A Definite Order'

As a residential facility, the school also provides students with a nonacademic life that administrators say has "a definite order."

There are opportunities for participating in tennis, basketball, volleyball, and acrobatics. Meals are scheduled and the upkeep of dormitories is regulated. Older students, through job credits, can earn such privileges as having stereos and making short excursions off campus.

In the evening, students take part in group sessions and clinics. The sessions, says Mr. Hargrave, are demanding, character-forming events that help create the drug-free futures some students once thought they had lost.

He characterizes the rapport between clinician and teacher as "working together like hand and glove." The school urges families to confer with the clinical staff and to attend occasional open houses.

Staff members at the school say they believe the youth drug-abuse problem in the United States has not eased, as many think, but has worsened. "One factor in this," says Kevin McEneaney, director of clinical services, "is the availability of drugs today. It's very, very easy for kids to get them, especially marijuana and cocaine."

In addition, today's drugs are stronger than those of the 1960's, and there is a new generation of drugs available--the "designer drugs" produced in California.

"There's an explosion of new mind-altering substances that are as different from the 1960's substances as the computer age is from the feathered pen," Mr. McEneaney says.

The problem is compounded, he adds, by "our society's confusion about the permissibility of drugs."

"Parents today, who were the 60's kids," says Mr. McEneaney, "don't realize their responsibility as parents. They're afraid of being branded as wild prohibitionists. They're afraid to say no. They have forgotten that a parent's job is to set rules."

Says Ms. Picotte: "American society as a whole hasn't said no to drugs yet. We still wink at it."

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