Maryland District's Version of the Intensive-Care Ward

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ANNAPOLIS, MD.--If there were a televised series like "The Bronx Zoo'' filmed on location in the Maryland suburbs near here, the Learning Center would seem to be a logical place for it.

An alternative school for disruptive students operated by the Anne Arundel County school system, the center enrolls youngsters who, for various reasons, have rarely attended their regular-school classes, or misbehaved when they did.

But with its picturesque location, near a shaded creek, the Learning Center looks nothing like the setting for CBS-TV's new series about a high-school principal struggling to "clean up'' a tough school. Nor does it bring to mind the "Blackboard Jungle'' depiction of rebellious teen-agers corrupting the learning process.

The halls and lockers are free of grime and graffiti. No students roam the halls while classes are in session. There is no shouting.

"Here, you don't have time for anybody to get on your nerves,'' said Shawn Lettau, 14, who has been attending classes at the special school since December.

Such alternative environments are an increasingly popular administrative approach to managing problem students, according to experts.

But the Learning Center, with its structured academic curriculum, separate facilities, and unusual philosophical bent, is more comprehensive than most.

The school's director, Huntley J. Cross, compares the program to "an intensive-care ward in a hospital.''

"A child must be pretty far down in the hole to be here,'' he said. By the time students enter the special program, educators in other county schools have already exhausted the traditional prescriptions for correcting their problem behaviors, Mr. Cross said.

Its students--7th, 8th, and 9th graders--typically stay for a semester or a year, Mr. Cross said. For four hours each day, they attend classes in language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, "personal management,'' and art. Classes in physical education and "special needs'' are added for students who have been in the program longer, he said.

The students get a 10-minute, supervised lunch break, and breaks between classes are only as long as it takes for a student to get from one room to another under the watchful eye of a teacher.

The philosophical glue that holds the program together is "reality therapy,'' a theory developed by William Glasser, a California psychiatrist. Mr. Cross said he became a disciple and salesman of the approach 13 years ago when he read Mr. Glasser's book, Schools Without Failures.

"It was somehow like a religious conversion,'' he said. "Glasser's concept is that people must be responsible for what they do. It says positively, 'I will not accept any excuse for your behavior.'''

The director has trained each of his teachers in the therapy and has built his program around it. Every 15 minutes, students are "graded'' on their behavior during the previous quarter-hour. At the end of each day, if they have behaved well throughout most of those 15-minute intervals, they receive a "successful day'' certificate.

At the end of each week, they bring home a document signifying that their week has been either "good'' or "excellent,'' depending on both their behavior and the number of "tasks'' they complete.

When a student misbehaves, the teacher asks him "What are you doing?''--not, as might be the more common impulse, "Why are you doing that?''

"I stopped a long time ago trying to find out why kids misbehave,'' Mr. Cross said. "I can't change that.''

The student who misbehaves must also fill out a slip describing what he has done and what he plans to do to correct it. If he refuses, he is sent to the "back room,'' where he must stay until he comes up with a plan he can agree to follow to correct his behavior.

Most of the time, Mr. Cross said, such methods achieve the program's basic goal--reducing the disruptive behavior patterns of students, who can then return to regular classrooms.

According to a recent, three-year follow-up study of 206 Learning Center students, 26 percent of the students who stayed in school did not have to be sent to the principal's office in the year following their return. Half of the students received no further suspensions that year and reported to school 94 percent of the time.

"When you consider that all of these students had been suspended four or five times before they came here, that's significant,'' Mr. Cross said.

The program proved less successful in deterring youngsters from dropping out of school. Nevertheless, Mr. Cross said he also counts as successes students who drop out of school to work. "They can always come back,'' he said. "If you're expelled, you have no other choice.''

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