Where 'castoffs' learn how to be whole people

It's a school for ''castoff'' students run by ''failed teachers'' - so some professionals will tell you - but its working philosophy is strikingly like that of an ''elitist'' private school a couple of communities down the freeway.

Further, you find a motive that keeps the principal and half a dozen faculty at this 13-year-old Chaparral Continuation School is a passion to stop failure.

''I came to catch the students I missed,'' says science-mathematics teacher Dr. David Price.''You don't feel so frustrated here by the numbers going through that you can't get to.''

''There is less regimentation here - obviously,'' says principal Gordon Howard - ''for us as well as for the kids. The teachers respect the kids as individuals. And that comes through to them.''

Proficiency tests, graduation requirements - these things are part of the package. But each one of the staff demonstrates caring about other people and gains satisfaction, even joy, from seeing growth and change.

''We work with the whole person,'' says counselor Nancy Osoff. ''And we're able by our working together to know what so-and-so is doing and what the problem is. . . . It's usually family and a lot of other things. Kids will say to us, 'Why don't you adopt me?' ''

Young people arrive here by choice or by orders of a comprehensive high school. Although a growing number of apt students come to accelerate, many are in trouble: academic, disciplinary, legal, or all three.

A defiant ''I don't care'' is the typical attitude at first. ''They come in and say, 'Show me,' but in a few weeks they're not saying that,'' Doc Price remarks. ''They're not hostile any more!''

Ken McBee, the newest teacher, says: ''Their basic problem is that they can't react in a reasonable way. . . . More than anything else we're giving them a chance to grow up.''

Student newcomers usually stick to the familiar so-called ''productive hours'' at first.

''We don't let them feel too comfortable not working,'' says Mr. Price. ''But still, it's their decision.''

As they become more positive, students go on a contract system: a signed agreement to earn so many credits, for a semester or shorter periods.

What if a student refuses to learn?

''Gordon (the principal) is very good about suspending them,'' Mr. Price says. ''About 30 students were sent home for a total of 108 days in the last September-to-December period - among an enrollment of about 150.

Mr. Price asserts,''It's surprisingly effective despite some parents' complaints. Students soon get the idea we don't want them here unless they're here for a reason.''

The staff were asked about frustrations:

''A student who wants to do just the easy things. . . .''

Drug abuse looms large: ''Students you know are dealing in marijuana and you know the negative effect on their mentality - and they don't even see it - but there's nothing we can do about it. . . .''

''Not to be able to mention moral standards'' especially bothers Armida Quevedo, a former nun who helped principal Howard, a Mormon, found the school in 1968.

Teachers must find ways that sometimes barely skirt rules not to discuss religion or ''interfere'' with students' ''values.'' As one student refugee from a high school in the district said, the attitude ''Do your own thing, kid'' prevails elsewhere.

Two male teachers sponsor an off-campus Bible Club. Students invite one another.

''I do it in psychology in terms of human behavior,'' says Mrs. Osoff. ''The kids want to know those things. Whatever the topic, they go from teacher to teacher.''

''And morality rubs off,'' through teaching by obvious personal example.

At Chaparral it's all right for students - and teachers - to have more than one way to do things. ''In most of the other systems,'' Mrs. Osoff says, ''you go through in a lockstep, structured manner.''

What's the feedback on young people who have been through Chaparral? One student expelled on a marijuana offense comes back to report he kicked the habit. Others return and admit, ''There was nothing anybody could do with me at the time.''

The faculty can't always claim success, of course, but ''individuals I always thought were a waste of humanity are working - for the Environmental Protection Agency, running their own businesses - they're even officers of the law!'' says Mr. Olivares.

Students like Chaparral because their peers don't typecast them as ''jocks or loadies or intellectuals . . . see? Everybody's here just like one big family,'' said one of the girls.

Students also say it's easier to learn here, but they also work harder. ''Teachers are strict and firm with you. . . . You have to earn your credits. . . . At the same time they help you out.''

The flexible arrangements often frustrate some teachers, but they concede ''the opposite would be disastrous.'' Flexible hours make work-study possible under school-sponsored plans:

''I work at a hospital.'' - ''I got a job at the Sizzler.'' - ''They helped me on typing.'' - ''I'm learning to be a cosmetologist.''

Contracts make graduation faster: ''I'm a sophomore and I'll graduate next year,'' one boy promises himself.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.