Dade Backs Boarding School for Troubled Boys

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The Dade County, Fla., school district is seeking state money to build a first-of-its-kind boarding school for boys who are likely to get into trouble with the law.

The school board in the 340,000-student district approved a plan for the boarding school on Feb. 19. A bill authorizing four pilot boarding schools was expected to be introduced in the Florida House this week. The bill will not identify prospective locations, but its sponsors are eyeing Dade County, Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville.

"We think it's a good idea to put money into prevention instead of waiting for kids to go through the juvenile-justice system," said Rep. J. Alex Villalobos, the chairman of the criminal-justice-appropriations committee and a co-sponsor of the bill.

"If we make an investment up front," the Dade County Republican said, "we think we'll see a reduction in crime."

At-Risk Youths Targeted

The boarding school in Dade County, which includes Miami, would be for boys ages 11 to 14 who have never been arrested but who fit an "at risk" profile to be developed by the district.

Red flags would include poverty, living with a single parent, low test scores, truancy, and disciplinary actions, said Associate Superintendent Russ Wheatley.

Enrollment would be voluntary. The school would accommodate about 200 students; Mr. Wheatley estimated that 2,000 to 3,000 boys would be eligible. Boys considered the most vulnerable would get preference for the school, which would operate five days a week.

Identifying boys as potential juvenile delinquents worries Frederica Wilson, one of two school board members who voted against the proposal. She views the proposed boarding school as a foster home or orphanage, and said she thinks poor children would be unfairly targeted.

"Just because a child is at-risk doesn't mean he's bad," Ms. Wilson said last week. "Are we going to take a child who misses school because he doesn't have shoes away from his family?"

The state needs more homes for juvenile delinquents, not for children who haven't committed crimes, she added.

The number of Dade County youths charged with violent crimes rose nearly 10 percent between 1991 and 1996, according to the district.

Legal Concerns

Mr. Wheatley said he proposed limiting the school to boys because they commit the vast majority of juvenile crimes.

That could bring opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. The group's executive director, Robyn Blumner, said last week that publicly financed single-sex education is discriminatory.

In the past, the ACLU has successfully challenged proposals for single-sex schools in other cities.

The district would ask the state to pick up an estimated $10 million tab for construction as well as a $3 million annual contract to operate the residence portion of the school, Mr. Wheatley said.

He said the district would pay an estimated $1.1 million to run the classes.

While urban districts nationwide have experimented with alternative schools to help steady troubled or reckless children, the Dade County plan stands out because students would live away from home.

Heidi Goldsmith, the executive director of the International Center for Residential Education, a Washington-based nonprofit organization, said she knows of only one publicly financed residential school for disadvantaged children, the Scotland School for Veterans' Children in Scotland, Pa. The school is only open to children who are family members of veterans.

Two similar projects--a proposed residence for students living in the nation's largest public housing development in Chicago, and another in New York City--never got off the ground.

"Most places in the U.S. for at-risk youth are for residential treatment, where the emphasis is on an illness, not on education," Ms. Goldsmith said. "Some students need 24-hour settings to be able to learn and turn their lives around."

Ms. Goldsmith suggested that Dade County should consider other sources of money for the boarding school, such as private donations.

"After money, the biggest challenge for schools like this is to send the right message to students," Ms. Goldsmith said. "Don't tell them they're one step away from jail. Tell them they matter."

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