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'We're designed for structure. Most of the kids who are sent here have lost focus on what they're in school for.'

Matthew Lusk,
principal,
Washington Opportunity School

"If you start noticing some problems, call me," he tells her. "I'll send one of my assistants to go talk to him. We'll follow up on him. But they're going to look at him as an opportunity-school kid. That's going to be tough on him. I can't change that."

"I don't expect you to," she says.

"It was just a couple of cigarettes and matches," he says. "If he had been a problem for the whole time he was here, I might consider keeping him. But that's all he's done."

The mother thanks Lusk for his time and then leaves with her son.

Lusk isn't even sure what landed Josh at Washington in the first place, so he gets on his walkie-talkie and says, "One to base. Marie, could you look at Josh's folder? Tell me what his precipitating incident was. Why's he here?"

"Ten four."

A few moments later, the secretary responds with a litany of bad behaviors: "Continual disregard of school rules and regulations. Truancy. Disruptive behavior in the classroom and cafeteria. Bus problems. Smoking. Fighting. Insubordination."

"Thank you, Marie," Lusk says, putting down his walkie-talkie. "Here," he says, "I haven't had a peep out of him, other than this thing today. That's growth. That shows me that he's doing better. His mom is concerned. She'd be happy if I'd said I'd keep him another nine weeks. She'd have gone home with a smile on her face. Because this has been great for her. This has been a vacation."

(In fact, the boy returned to his old school, where he promptly got into a fight with a student. He's now back at Washington for another stint.)

Inside Jan Carroll's science classroom, 15 students—12 boys and three girls—are sitting quietly at their desks, which are lined up in straight rows. The boy with the Ben Davis shirt—it's now covered by a white sweatshirt—is reading an article on humpback whales in Current Science magazine. Against one wall is a large fish tank, gurgling. Carroll, a tall woman wearing a red blouse and blue slacks, circulates around the room, answering questions.

The class rules are posted on the blackboard. Be in your seat before the tardy bell rings. Bring class materials. Raise hand and wait for teacher's permission before talking. Keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself. No cursing or teasing. Ask and get permission before leaving your seat. Food, drink, gum, and candy are not allowed. Follow teacher's instruction.

Although opportunity-school students are required to improve their grades, Lusk admits that academics are not his priority.

The students—a mixture of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders—seem to be following the rules today. In fact, it's a remarkably ordered classroom for one that has nothing but troublemakers. At the slightest indication that any of her students are about to get out of line, Carroll issues a stern warning. When the bell rings, she quickly ushers the kids out the door, saying, "Go, go, go!" They have exactly one minute to get to their next class, which is in the room next door. (Students stay grouped together all day, and they move from class to class in a counter-clockwise direction.) The chairs in Carroll's classroom are still warm as the kids in her next period take their seats, seconds before the bell rings.

"We're designed for structure," says Lusk, who keeps a close watch on students as they change classes. "Most of the kids who are sent here have lost focus on what they're in school for. It becomes more important to dress a certain way, or socialize, or whatever, than to go to school. And that infringes on their ability to succeed. So we take all that away."

But even though opportunity-school students are required to improve their grades before they can return to their home schools, Lusk admits that academics are not his priority. "If I were to tell you that this is an academic-enhancing institution," he says, "I'd be lying to you. We're not. My job is to change their behavior. If I make them all A students and send them back to their schools with poor behavior, they're going to send them right back to me. So we do our academics, and we do a good job at it, but our primary focus is to get the students to realize that bad behavior is not a good thing, and to change it, so they can go back and be successful. Because I will tell you—the tail wags the dog. If their behavior improves, their grades will go up." And, in fact, that's usually what happens, Lusk says. "Most of these kids come here with F's. They do better here—they have to. And they tend to do better when they return to their home schools."

The school offers only basic classes—social studies, language arts, math, science, physical education—and not much else. "We don't have band, choir, any of those things," Lusk says. After all, he doesn't want his students to get too comfortable at his institution. "The bottom line is, this is an artificial environment," he says. "This is not what the real world is like. All we're trying to do is teach them certain values and certain rules, so when they go back to their regular schools, they can take those things with them. But I don't want them to get used to this, because the next step is jail."

It's mid-morning, time for the daily nutrition break. Students are sitting at the picnic tables, eating snacks and drinking sodas, while the teachers stand around the perimeter, keeping watch. "They all have assigned positions," Lusk says. "They make sure that fights don't break out, and that the kids are sitting at their assigned tables."

Eight boys are lined up against the chain-link fence that faces busy Lake Mead Boulevard. "They're in detention," Lusk explains. "They don't get to socialize. They stay on the fence, rain or shine, hot or cold." One teacher has been assigned to monitor these particular students.

Lusk doesn't deny that his school can, at times, resemble a penal institution. "But when parents come and look at the place, they come away impressed," he says. "These kids need this kind of structure. And for the most part, they appreciate it. They might not want to admit it, but they usually react fairly well to it."

The bell rings, and the students quickly form lines in front of the classroom doors. One more period, and then it will be time to go home. The boy with the Ben Davis shirt walks by, his shirt hanging down well past his sweatshirt. Lusk spots it immediately and shouts, "Tuck it in!" The boy complies.

"Somehow he's got to show everybody that he's got this shirt on," Lusk says. "That's his claim, his signal. Could be a wannabe."

He points to another boy who can't be much older than 13. "He's here for attempted sexual assault," Lusk says. "He tried to rape a girl in a bathroom on campus. He comes here, and all my young ladies fall in love with him. They pass him their phone numbers." The principal shakes his head.

Lusk points out another kid. "He's just a pistol," he says. "I think he kicked his hall monitor in the groin and put him in the hospital. And see that girl doing pushups? She slapped a teacher around, pushed her over a desk."

For the most part, however, Lusk doesn't go out of his way to find out what the students did to get them sent to Washington, although their records are kept on file. "But we're very aware of what they're capable of doing," he says. "This is a very explosive situation. People say to my staff members, 'What an easy job. The kids all leave at 11:45, then you've got your prep period and then lunch.' And my teachers say to them, 'OK, you take 22 of these kids and put them in the same room. You try it.'

"This isn't a job for everybody. We hire very selectively. You have to have the right people. You don't want teachers who can't handle this job because it's a hassle. I need to see the spark in their eyes, something that tells me they want to be here."

Most of Washington's 10 teachers have been at the school for a number of years. Some have spent almost their entire careers at alternative schools, and they like working with nontraditional students, even the troublemakers.

"This is my sixth year," says reading teacher Kathy Hamilton. "A lot of the kids don't understand why I like teaching here. What they don't understand is that I like it because I'm trying to do omething for them. Yesterday, a girl asked me, 'Why do you want to be here with all these bad kids?' And I said, 'I don't perceive you that way, and I wish you wouldn't perceive yourself that way. You're not a bad person because you did something wrong. That doesn't change you for life.'"

It's hard to measure just what effect the opportunity schools are having on Clark County's regular schools. At the very least, they offer principals a sort of institutionalized "time out" room for chronic misbehavers, even if they don't necessarily solve the underlying causes of bad behavior.

It's hard to measure just what effect the opportunity schools are having.

"The important thing," superintendent McHenry says, "is that teachers and administrators know they have a final outlet. They aren't going to have to keep living with these kids forever if they continue to have problems. They can be removed for a period of time. And schools need that. Teachers need to know that."

"Understand, we're not changing every child," says William Campbell, Washington's physical education instructor. "We're like a bandaid sometimes. But a lot of these kids have been ostracized because of their behavior. Their teachers don't want to deal with them. But we can."

"For some students," says Ronan Matthew, principal of Western High School, one of the district's regular schools, "it works wonders. They don't want to go back. But for the ones who have committed major crimes, I can't say it makes an appreciable difference in their behavior." But he likes having the opportunity-school option available, and he refers about 50 students to the schools every year. Indeed, he thinks the district should enlarge the program to handle more students.

Until recently, Lusk says, administrators placed a limit on the number of students that could be assigned to the schools. Toward the end of each quarter, principals would receive "the memo" informing them that the schools had reached capacity. "But they got so much flak from the secondary school principals because they didn't want these kids on campus," Lusk says, "that we were given the edict, 'You don't close.' Consequently, I've had to add afternoon sessions." But that hasn't solved the space problem.

"At the beginning of the school year," says Connie Geldbach, director of pupil personnel services for the Clark County schools, "there were 190,000 students in the district, and 45,000 of those were in grades 6 through 12. Last year, we did 161 expulsions and placed about 1,000 students in opportunity schools. That's a very small percentage."

With so many students, principals have had to make tougher decisions about which students will be sent to opportunity schools. "So the level of offense has gone up," Lusk says. "The regular schools have to eat the easy ones and send us the hard ones."

By the time the last bell rings at 11:40 a.m., Washington Opportunity School is surrounded by 17 yellow buses, their engines idling in the hot sun. Students line up in the courtyard according to which one they ride.

Lusk spots a boy wandering off and shouts, "Hey! Get in line!"

After a few minutes, the teachers escort the students to their buses, one group at a time. Lusk, his ever-present walkie-talkie in hand, stands by the gate, keeping watch. When two boys start a scuffle, the principal stops it immediately. "Hey!" he says. "What's going on?"

Two prostitutes walk by. "We see them every now and then," Lusk says. "They frequent the motels in the neighborhood."

At 11:45, the students are all on board, and Lusk gives the lead bus driver the signal. The buses begin rolling, on their way to Jefferson Opportunity School, where they will pick up more students.

Lusk heads back to his office for a quick lunch. At 12:15, his four afternoon students will arrive. (By June, that number will have swelled to 50 or 60.) If he's lucky, he'll leave school by 4:30, 10 hours after he arrived. Tomorrow morning, he'll be back at the gate, a cup of coffee in one hand and his walkie-talkie in the other, waiting for the students to enter his domain.


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