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Paul, 17, was getting decent enough grades in elementary school, but kept misbehaving. He disrupted class and cussed out the principal. By 6th grade, he had transferred to Pacers Academy, an Indianapolis alternative middle and high school with smaller classes and a more active approach to learning. He did much better there.
Several later attempts to make it in traditional middle and high schools didn’t go well, however. He felt lost and angry.
“There were too many kids and only one teacher,” Paul says. “There was no way you could get any help.”
He admits he doesn’t control his anger well; he got into fights with other students and was late for class a lot. One high school teacher routinely “talked to me like I was a dog, no respect,” he says.
Each time regular school hasn’t worked out for Paul, he’s gone back to Pacers. The close relationships with teachers and the support from social workers, counselors, and mentors help him make progress. He’s hoping to get his diploma in 2007 and get into college, where he wants to study architectural engineering and play football.
Paul doesn’t have many family examples to follow. His mother didn’t graduate from high school. He’s watched her struggle, working low-paying jobs to support him and his three younger half-siblings. At times, money was so scarce that they moved in with another family.
“It’s not enough to have a high school diploma anymore,” he says. “I’ve seen other people with just a diploma and they do OK, but I don’t want to do just OK. I want to do well.”
But first Paul must pass Indiana’s graduation exams. He flunked both mathematics and English the first time, but he’ll try again.
And he might not be able to finish high school at Pacers. The program’s high school portion ends with the 2005-06 school year, so Paul will probably have to finish his credits at a traditional high school.
“I’m a little worried about meeting my goals,” he says. “I keep telling myself all I gotta do is set my mind to not getting in trouble.”
Student Portrait by Tom Strickland for Education Week