Reform School

By David Hill — May 01, 1998 30 min read
Many districts are setting up so-called alternative schools for violent and disruptive students. Critics call them dumping grounds; defenders call them an idea whose time has come.

“Let me see that shirt,” says the principal of Washington Opportunity School.

It’s 7:15 a.m. in North Las Vegas, far from the Strip, and Matthew Lusk is doing what he does every weekday morning: inspecting students as they get off their buses and enter the campus through a large, chain-link metal gate.

The school, part of the Clark County School District, serves about 160 students in grades 6, 7, and 8. It is in a low-income neighborhood just north of downtown Las Vegas. The students have been assigned to Washington because they have gotten into trouble at their regular schools. Some have assaulted their teachers. Others have been caught with drugs or weapons. They are the bad apples, the chronically disruptive students, and they are here to get their act together. If they do, they will be allowed to return to their home schools.

The approach is not new. In fact, Washington has been around for about 25 years. But an increasing number of school districts have concluded that the best way to deal with violent and disruptive students is to pull them out of the general school population and place them in separate educational facilities. Critics call these alternative schools dumping grounds; defenders call them an idea whose time has come.

“Come here,” Lusk barks to a Hispanic boy with close-cropped hair. “Let me see that shirt.”

The boy ambles over to where Lusk, holding a Motorola walkie-talkie and a large cup of 7-11 coffee, is standing. The principal checks the label on the boy’s oversized, black-and-white pinstripe work shirt and quickly renders his judgment. “Go to the office,” he tells the boy, who doesn’t utter a word as he disappears around the corner of a portable classroom. Lusk gets on the walkie-talkie and says to his secretary, “Marie, I’m sending a young man to the office with a Ben Davis shirt.”

“Ten four,” comes the reply.

The brand, Lusk explains, is popular among gang members. Because Ben Davis clothes are loose-fitting, some kids wear them to hide things, he says. “So we’ve just outlawed them here.”

Lusk, 48, is a large man who dresses casually but with style. Today, he’s wearing brown tassel loafers, olive-colored khaki pants, a green dress shirt with gold tie, and a black bomber jacket. Dozens of keys dangle from a metal ring attached to his trousers. On his wrist is a large Rolex watch with a silver and gold band. A pair of aviator-style sunglasses provides the finishing touch.

One by one, more boys and girls file by the principal, who is accompanied by two of his teachers. “Tuck that shirt in,” he tells one boy. “Let me see that belt,” he commands another.

Lusk knows that his students find him intimidating. “My voice has a lot to do with it,” he says. “It’s very projective.” Then again, maybe it’s that Lusk, who played high school football until he broke his neck in a diving accident, weighs 250 pounds and stands six feet tall. But he doesn’t like to throw his weight around. “It would be very easy to do that, but they get enough of that at home and on the streets. That’s dumb stuff.”

A bus driver walks over to Lusk and hands him a discipline report. It seems that one of his passengers, a boy wearing an Orlando Magic jacket, was lighting matches on the way to school. Lusk reads the report carefully and then frisks the student until he finds a pack of Marlboros and a box of matches. Throwing the offending objects to the ground, Lusk asks, “What are you doing with these?” The boy, a 7th grader, mumbles something.

Lusk puts his walkie-talkie to his mouth and says, “One to base. Josh to the office. He had cigarettes and matches on him. Could you start the paperwork and call the parents?”

“Ten four.”

Lusk takes a sip of coffee and shakes his head. “You see some goofy stuff,” he says.

Three years ago, Albert Shanker, the longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers, decided it was time to wage war on violent and chronically disruptive students. Shanker, who died in 1997, launched a campaign called “Lessons for Life: Responsibility, Respect, Results,” which advocated a get-tough approach to student discipline. In his New York Times column, “Where We Stand,” Shanker wrote: “What kind of teaching and learning can take place in classrooms where teachers have to spend their time dealing with students who are violent or who constantly disrupt the class by shouting obscenities and threatening other students?”

Shanker called for school districts to adopt strict discipline codes and to establish alternative educational placements for persistent troublemakers. “This would allow the vast majority of students to learn and the few disruptive students to get special help,” he argued.

When Albert Shanker endorsed alternative schools for disruptive students, one prominent critic accused him of launching ‘a national campaign of exclusion.’

Teachers, who have long placed discipline at the top of their list of concerns, cheered Shanker’s tough talk. But not everyone applauded. When the union leader gave a speech to members of the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents 50 of the nation’s largest urban districts, Michael Casserly, the organization’s executive director, fired off a letter to Shanker denouncing the “philosophical underpinnings” of the speech. He accused Shanker of failing to address how to serve students who have been placed in alternative settings and of leaving “the clear impression that your interests extend only to children who do not present teachers any problems.” He called “Lessons for Life” a “national campaign of exclusion” that has “the classic ring of ‘blaming the victim.’”

Shanker, in typical fashion, went on the offensive. He even devoted an entire “Where We Stand” column to the matter. Casserly and other critics, he wrote, were distorting his views. “They say that disruptive behavior is something that doesn’t ‘occur often'—even though parents see it, together with its magnification through bullying and peer pressure, as problem number one,” the union leader wrote. “They present themselves as good guys who want to educate all the children and accuse us of being bad guys who only want to educate the easy ones. But are they educating all the children? In most classes with a disruptive child, none of the children are being educated.”

A growing number of districts have decided that alternative placements, despite their high cost, offer the best solution for dealing with violent and disruptive students. In fact, some state legislatures now mandate such schools. In Virginia, for example, local school districts are required to provide “alternative education for certain students,” namely those who have committed offenses relating to weapons, alcohol, or drugs and have been suspended or expelled for a semester. Since 1993, every school district in Mississippi has been required to establish an alternative school for violent and disruptive students.

But educators continue to debate their effectiveness. Jerry Mintz, director of the Alternative Education Resource Organization in Roslyn, New York, calls them “soft jails.” “Let’s face it,” he says. “They exist just to get these kids out of the regular schools. They’re like bandaids—they treat the symptoms, but they don’t deal with the underlying problem.” Indeed, Mintz, a proponent of the learner-centered alternative schools developed in the 1970s, believes this new model “has pretty much wrecked the definition of ‘alternative school.’” Such schools, he says, were designed for alienated and at-risk students, not necessarily for troublemakers. They offer smaller classes, a more-relaxed atmosphere, and self-directed learning. They are for students who want to be there, not for students who have been sent there.

In Clark County, which has one of the most extensive alternative education programs in the country, both models exist. There are four high schools exclusively for students at risk of dropping out. Another program, Sunset High School, offers afternoon and evening classes. “Basically, we offer a full continuum of services for nontraditional students,” says Donald McHenry, superintendent of the district’s alternative education division.

‘We offer a full continuum of services for nontraditional students.’

Donald McHenry, superintendent of Clark County’s alternative education division.

And that includes the opportunity schools. Washington first opened in the early 1970s, when the Clark County School District served only about 50,000 students. Since then, two more such schools—Jefferson and Biltmore—have opened, and the district’s enrollment has mushroomed to 190,000, making it the 10th-largest and fastest-growing school system in the United States. The district’s three opportunity schools now serve about 1,000 students in grades 6-12 during a given school year. They are considered model programs, and educators from across the country have traveled to Las Vegas to look at them.

The schools, McHenry says, have always targeted students with habitual discipline problems. But they are not, he insists, dumping grounds. “This is not a way for schools to simply get rid of kids they are having problems with,” he explains. “They know that one of the conditions is that those students will return to their home schools.” Nonetheless, the home school gets a break—even if it’s only for 15 days, the minimum length of stay for opportunity-school students. In fact, most stay longer, usually seven to nine weeks, and some—the worst offenders—are assigned to the schools on a long-term basis.

The students have committed various offenses, including fighting, insubordination, possession of drugs, vandalism, sexual assault, battery, and the like. Some have caused major disruptions at their home schools. Others have been caught on campus with knives or razor blades. But most have been banished for “continual disregard of rules.”

“A lot of these kids are pains in the rear,” Lusk says. “They’re chronic.”

A few were expelled from their home schools for more serious crimes, such as arson or gun possession. They’ve already spent time at the district’s continuation school, the first stop for expelled students, and now they must successfully complete at least one quarter at the opportunity school before they can return to a regular school.

The opportunity schools aren’t exactly boot camps, but they’re no picnic either. “It’s a very structured, controlled environment,” McHenry says. Classes are 37 minutes long, with one-minute passing periods. There’s a 10-minute “nutrition” break late in the morning, but students must sit at assigned tables in an outdoor courtyard, and they are not allowed to talk to friends at other tables. School ends at 11:40 a.m., and then the kids go home for the day. The school day is somewhat shorter than at the regular schools, in part because of the abbreviated passing periods and the lack of a lunch period.

“We take away all the extraneous things,” Lusk says.

The students are under constant supervision. At Washington, a campus monitor patrols the grounds. At Jefferson, which is for 10th, 11th, and 12th graders, a full-time police officer maintains a highly visible presence, mostly as a deterrent. (He also inspects students every morning with a hand-held metal detector.) Rule-breaking is simply not tolerated. Shirts must be tucked in at all times. Baggy pants are forbidden. Hats and jewelry are not allowed. Belt buckles with cut-out monograms—popular among gang members—are confiscated. “Basically, it’s like a prison,” complains senior Matthew Davis, “because you have no rights.”

The schools certainly look like prisons. All three are former elementary schools that have been supplemented with portable classrooms, strategically placed to form a central courtyard. Students are not allowed to leave campus, and they’re given very little opportunity to socialize, except during the closely monitored nutrition break. The buildings have few windows, and each campus is surrounded by a tall chain-link fence. “That’s as much to keep other kids out as it is to keep our kids in,” Lusk says. A shiny new McDonald’s sits directly across the street from Jefferson, but it’s strictly off-limits. “I think they put it over there just to tease us,” says Leah Rice, a 10th grader who was arrested for possession of methamphetamine at her home school. “I feel like I’m in jail here, like I’m locked up.”

“They don’t like it here,” admits Thurban Warrick, Jefferson’s principal. “That’s why they want to get out.”

To get back to their home schools, students must stay out of trouble, improve their grades, and attend classes regularly. They also must keep away from their old schools. At the end of each nine-week quarter, staff members meet to determine which students can return to their regular schools and which must stay for another quarter. “Most of the students tend to be pretty successful,” McHenry says. “And most of them are returned to their home schools.”

But some will be back. “The recidivism rate is higher than we would like,” Lusk admits. “I would guess that we get about 30 to 35 percent of these kids back.” Paul Burek, the counselor at Jefferson, puts a more positive spin on his school’s similar statistics. “I think we’ve got about a 33 percent recidivism rate here at Jefferson,” he says. “We’ll see some of these kids again. But that means 67 percent have done well. They won’t come back here.”

Carrie Salas isn’t thrilled to be back at Washington Opportunity School. On the other hand, her grades have improved since she was transferred.

Carrie Salas is a repeat offender. Now in 8th grade, she was a 6th grader when she was first sent to Washington. “I vandalized a teacher’s car,” she says matter-of-factly. “I messed up the paint job, let the air out of the tires.” A tall 14-year-old wearing baggy black pants and a green flannel shirt, Carrie has an angry look on her face. Indeed, controlling her anger seems to be her biggest problem. Asked what she did to get sent back to Washington, she says, “Numerous things. First, I had a lighter and had it lit in the school cafeteria. And then my dean ticked me off, so I kind of threatened to kill her. I said, ‘I’m going to kill you and everybody who works for you, too.’ Kind of like, ‘I’m going to get you and your little dog, too.’” She adds, “I’m a violent person when it comes right down to it. But until then, I’m just a strong, silent type. A loner.”

Carrie isn’t thrilled to be back at Washington. “If it ever burns down,” she says, “you won’t see me crying.” On the other hand, her grades have improved since she was transferred, and she’s now getting mostly A’s and B’s. “Probably because I’m away from my friends,” she says, “so I don’t have reason to goof around.” She also credits a math teacher at her home school for getting her back on track academically just before she was sent to Washington. “She inspired me to start doing better. Because she told me I could do it. Before, I never tried because I didn’t think I could.” For a moment, the tough-girl posture disappears, and Carrie confesses that she can’t wait to get back to her old school “to see my math teacher who inspired me.”

When he became principal of Washington three years ago, Matthew Lusk printed a brief informational pamphlet for parents. In it, he wrote, “There is no singularly more influential aspect in the success of a child in school than that of a parent....This person need not be educated, need not be wealthy, and has no requirement for being successful. All they really need to be is there.”

The brochure encourages parents to meet with Lusk “if you have any discontent with the school process.” But many parents are afraid to come talk to him. Some were troublemakers themselves, and the principal’s office is all-too-familiar territory. “They fear school,” he says. So when parents do come see him, Lusk goes out of his way to make them feel welcome. “Sometimes, however, they’ve got a bone to pick with the district, and we’re the target. And I won’t tolerate that.”

Today, a father has come to defend his son, Raymond, an 8th grader who was sent to Washington just seven days ago after being caught with a razor blade at his home school. Yesterday, he was sent home following an altercation with one of his teachers. “I like to see parents here,” Lusk says, “because a lot of the kids don’t have anyone who will come to their aid.”

The principal ushers the father, a lanky man wearing a white Planet Hollywood T-shirt and University of Nevada-Las Vegas cap, into the office of counselor Karin Huffer, where his son is waiting, looking scared. The teacher, Rod Schaer, comes in and takes a seat. Lusk begins the meeting by saying that he supports his teachers and staff “100 percent.”

“I understand that,” the father says.

Lusk asks Schaer to explain what happened. “Yesterday in class,” he says, “Raymond was sitting over by the door, and he wasn’t really doing anything. I suspect I said, ‘Let’s get back on task, let’s get back to work.’ And I got a response from Ray. As far as I’m concerned, that’s insubordination.” Schaer told the boy to go to the office, and on his way out, he “mumbled some profanities.”

“OK, your shot, Raymond,” the father says.

The boy, dressed in black jeans, a blue T-shirt, and blue and white sneakers, admits that the first part is true. But he insists that he never swore. “That was someone else in the room,” he says.

The father believes his son is telling the truth. “Ray has never uttered a profanity in his life,” he says. “Not even so much as a damn, much less anything that someone would get irate about. And I will stand behind that 1,000 percent.” His voice is trembling.

Huffer tactfully redirects the conversation. “OK, let’s look at your grades,” she says. “You came in here with almost all F’s. Let’s focus on that. I’ve never known Mr. Schaer to have poor hearing before. Whenever he’s told me something, it’s been pretty accurate. But I think our time is better spent on getting those F’s out of there. What are you going to do?”

‘This has been more than a rude awakening.’

The parent of a student at Washington Opportunity School

Raymond agrees to “do whatever I have to do” to improve his grades. His father, apparently satisfied that he was given the opportunity to speak on behalf of his son, says, “I agree with you folks. He has to make his own decisions. He’s getting far too old to let Dad make his decisions for him. I told him, ‘I don’t care if they make you so mad that you want to scream, Ray. Just bite your lip and do whatever they tell you without making a sound.’”

Lusk says he will reinstate the boy today. He reminds the father that students are required to stay at opportunity school for a minimum of 15 days. “Your son came here on the 16th day before the end of the quarter,” he says. “So we have to be real careful if he wants to go back to his home school after next week. Because regardless of how he does here, the situation still is that he brought a razor blade to that school. So when he goes back, they’re going to look at him as the kid with the razor blade. They’re going to want to know, ‘How many days was he there? Did he have any problems?’”

In other words, if Raymond doesn’t improve his behavior and his grades, he’ll have to stay at Washington for another quarter.

The father and son both get the message. “This has been more than a rude awakening,” the father says.

After the father leaves, Lusk says, “I wanted him to see that I believe my staff members. Now, did his son really swear? I think he probably did. But am I going to convince the dad today that his son swore? No. That’s a losing battle. The dad’s adamant that the kid never swears. I have never met a child in my life who has never sworn. But that’s OK. It doesn’t make any difference. What I want to do is get the kid back in school and get him to be successful. My teacher’s happy because he got a chance to state his case. I supported him, and my counselor supported him. But if the dad had started acting like a jerk, it would have been a totally different situation.”

Lusk is standing on a ramp that leads to his school’s special education building, where there are three full-time teachers and three full-time aides. (Washington has about 30 special ed students.) Outside, in the courtyard, a handful of kids sit quietly in detention, one per picnic table. Lusk points to a boy with his hands on his head and says, “See that kid? His mother lives in a homeless shelter down the street. He’s overweight, and he’s got a real high voice, and the kids tease him unmercifully. So he reacts by hitting them.” He shakes his head. “What else could you land on an adolescent? He’s poor, overweight, and he has a high voice. I mean, it’s understandable that he’s going to be upset.”

Many, but not all, of the students who end up at the opportunity schools come from poor families. Most parents work—unemployment is virtually nonexistent in Las Vegas these days—but chances are they hold one of the city’s many low-paying casino jobs. And since Vegas is a 24-hour town, it’s not unusual for at least one parent to work the graveyard shift. As a result, children often go unsupervised for long periods of time.

Las Vegas is a boom town. It seems like every other person just came in from Los Angeles or San Bernardino or Palmdale. The Strip resembles one large construction site. Nearing completion is the 3,000-room Bellagio, a megaresort that will bring 5,000 new jobs.

“Yes,” Lusk says, “it’s going to have 500 good-paying jobs and 4,500 $35 shifts, where you sweep up cigarette butts, or you cook the meals, or you wait on tables. That’s the reality of it.

‘The poverty of some of these kids almost guarantees that they’re going to have problems.’

Matthew Lusk principal, Washington Opportunity School

“A lot of people are still foolish to come here and think they’re going to make it big. So they sell the house, or they quit their job, and they’ve got a ‘system,’ or they’re going to deal cards and make a million dollars. They don’t know that card dealers don’t make a million dollars. So they blow what they’ve got left, and they move on. It’s a big transient town. And it really affects the schools.

“The poverty of some of these kids almost guarantees that they’re going to have problems, unfortunately. You get a parent who works all week, he comes home, and by the time he takes everything out of his check to pay the bills and feed his family, all he’s got is enough money for a 12-pack, and so he sits down and he drinks it on a Friday night and gets mad at himself and mad at the world and he starts beating on the wife and kids. And the kids learn that type of behavior. And they learn that the best way to get something is to scam people and to lie, steal, and hit. And that’s how they get through life.”

As he’s talking, the mother of Josh, the boy who was caught this morning with cigarettes and matches, comes over. She’s just picked up her son from the school office. At the moment, Josh looks a bit like a deer caught in headlights.

“Where’d he get those Marlboros?” Lusk asks the mother.

“I don’t know,” she says. “I smoke, but I don’t smoke those.”

“He can come back Monday morning,” Lusk says.

“I happened to be home this morning when someone called from your office,” she says. “Normally, I work until 11 o’clock in the morning. If something happens on a day when I’m at work, I want you to put Josh on the Las Vegas Strip bus and send him to my work.”

“Not a problem,” Lusk says. “Does he know where to get off?”

“I work at the Excalibur,” she says.

“He’s scheduled to get out of here next week,” Lusk says. “If he comes back on Monday and keeps his nose clean, I’ll pop him out of here. Do you understand?” He turns to the boy and adds, “You make me that deal, and I’ll get you out of here. If you screw around one more time, I’ll keep you for another nine weeks. Fair enough? Hopefully we won’t have to have another conversation.”

Josh nods his head. He seems anxious to get going. His mother says, “I hope not either.” Then she asks her son to go sit at one of the picnic tables and wait for her to finish talking with the principal.

“I’m worried about what’s going to happen when he gets back to his old school,” she says.

‘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.

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1998 edition of Teacher as Reform School