Tough Kids Learn to Meet Tough Standards

Wildcat Academy makes high school graduates of students no one could reach

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

By the time Annette Lacoot was halfway through high school, she'd had her share of difficulties. She had landed in remedial classes after an accident sidelined her for several months. Soon thereafter, she became pregnant.

Facing motherhood and an uncertain future, she decided to change course. So she enrolled at Wildcat Academy in downtown Manhattan.

That was two years ago. Now, the high school graduate is looking forward to college in the fall. She thinks she might like to become a school principal or a community-center director.

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Annette got a fresh start at Wildcat, an alternative high school that targets at-risk teens. Founded in 1992, the academy has a simple objective: motivate students that no one else has reached. Applicants enroll on a first-come, first-served basis for a program of rigorous academic study, strict discipline, and workplace internships. And with the overwhelming majority of Wildcat graduates going on to college or the armed services, the school is setting a standard for how a small and innovative enterprise can make a big difference in troubled young lives.

"Wildcat truly is a model," says Robert Berne, vice president for academic development at New York University. " People clearly buy into the mission and it works."

For evidence, visitors need look no farther than the halls of Wildcat, which are covered with everything from award-winning student art to term papers to certificates of achievement. It's a noteworthy accomplishment in a school where one-third of students are on probation or parole, and a third of the young women have children. The majority have parents on welfare, and most are from single-parent families.

Yet Wildcat, which operates under contract with the New York Board of Education, has a growing record of success: Out of 56 students who have graduated in the past two years, all are now in college or the armed forces. Very few students drop out. All this is being done on about $5,800 per student per year - some $1,000 less per student than other city public schools spend.

Classes runs year-round, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each weekday. Students follow a regular high school curriculum and work at internships every other week - if they've finished their homework, of which they have about 12 hours each week. In addition to regular subjects, Wildcat emphasizes art, music, and writing, to help students learn to express themselves in healthy ways.

Wildcat succeeds because of its "fundamental belief that these students can learn and achieve," says Amalia Betanzos, president of Wildcat Service Corp., which runs Wildcat Academy along with other social-services programs. She adds that the school has "very high standards of discipline and comportment."

Keeping close tabs

It also has teachers - hired directly by Wildcat - that keep close tabs on the needs of the school's 125 students. The staff is small: just six teachers and three counselors. But "If you have a personal problem, [counselors and teachers] take it and make it their personal problem," says Charles Nieves, a recent graduate.

Counselor Sofnia Amalbert, for example, often calls absent students at home on her time, or goes out to look for them. "I've had kids who graduated because of that extra mile," she says.

"In this school you have people who see the job as a vocation. They want to be there," says Carlos Medina, former superintendent of schools for District 4 in New York and a senior fellow at the Center for Educational Innovation at the Manhattan Institute, which has been very involved with the development of Wildcat.

The small size of the school - just 125 students - helps not only with social adjustment, but with academic skills as well. At Annette's old school, she felt teachers didn't know her. "Here you get that individual time," she says. "That's why I've done so much better." Science teacher Brumsic Brandon notes that when he taught at larger schools, he didn't know all his students' names. But "you can't get lost here," he says.

The caring and acceptance on the part of the staff have spilled over to the student body, says Ron Tabano, director of Wildcat Academy. "They feel like we're all in this together."

Mr. Brandon concurs. Students tolerate and support those who look or act different, he notes. There hasn't been a single case of a student bringing a weapon to school all year. According to Charles, students avoid fighting and go to counselors to work out differences.

Nevertheless, Lakee Harris, who came to Wildcat after being stabbed in front of his old school, says "I'm trying not to make too many friends here, 'cause some people are still in the same boat I used to be in. No time for that."

A freer rein

The school enjoys considerable independence, receiving a lump-sum budget from the Board of Education. As a result, faculty can shape their curriculum and have more freedom to innovate in the classroom. "Autonomy is absolutely essential," says Mr. Tabano.

Independence has more tangible benefits as well: "We get things done quickly," says Ms. Betanzos, whether that means raising outside funds from foundations or getting faucets fixed.

This freedom also allows students a role in decisionmaking, thus increasing their investment in the school. "There's more responsibility on the students' part, more ownership in how things work or don't work" than in traditional schools, says language-arts teacher John Rhodes.

Wildcat's unusual one week on, one week off internship program provides an additional draw for students. After a month of perfect attendance and academic commitment, students begin working as interns, with their wages paid by Wildcat. They've worked as ushers at museums, copier repairmen, aquarium guides, and stockbrokers' assistants.

"They're learning about the world of work, the joy of work, that there are opportunities for bettering their lives," says Mr. Medina.

Critics worry that separating out students with problems will cause them to be stereotyped and isolated.

"The lack of these schools is what creates that," counters Medina, explaining that traditional programs don't provide support that can really help students with serious difficulties.

Planning a brighter future

But the best defense is that the students at Wildcat speak well of their experience, praising the teachers. And they speak of significant personal change.

"Before, I didn't even think of going to college," says Janet, who now plans on majoring in human resources at Audrey Cohen College in Manhattan.

And Annette, who's headed to Long Island University in Brooklyn, says "in my old school I always thought 'you're never gonna do this.' Now I think I can do anything."

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