A `Last Chance' School at Work. Personal attention, incentives, counseling help students learn who didn't learn before


IN the aftermath of a brutal attack by a roving gang of youths on a Central Park jogger, another group of youths, coming from far tougher circumstances than the assailants, met to discuss the incident. Nearly all said the perpetrators should face severe punishment; some of the speakers called for castration or the electric chair. But there was also a mature and sober analysis: Youngsters spoke of a tremendous anger harbored by many ghetto youths who come to an early realization that America's ``Land of Opportunity'' has no place for them.

The 15- to 21-year-old participants in the discussion groups are the students at Argus Community Alternative High School in the South Bronx, and they know of what they speak. They are kids who dropped out - or were thrown out - of other schools, or who have drug, alcohol, or behavior problems. Others, although they are just kids themselves, are already parents.

Most come from broken homes and a cycle of unemployment and poverty where the only opportunity - one that promises gold jewelry and fancy cars - seems to come from selling drugs.

For them, Argus may be the last stop: The last chance to learn to read, and the last chance for educators and counselors to breathe direction and hope into their lives. It is also an example worthy of examination, because at a time of massive failures by the educational system, Argus works.

The school, which was transformed two years ago from a conventional school curriculum to the more creative format of an ``alternative'' school, has in the past year seen attendance rates double and the number of high school graduation equivalency (GED) certificates awarded quadruple. Of 89 students who have gone through vocational training in the last 16 months, 60 are working full time.

Perhaps more important, Argus is succeeding in socializing youths who constantly face peer pressure to commit acts that harm themselves and others. The park attack was not some abstract event to Argus students. ``There was a student here who could have gone with those kids,'' says Adolfo Ripley. ``He decided to stay home.''

Adolfo himself transferred from another high school where he says he was ``hanging out with the wrong crowd, doing drugs, drinking, cutting classes.'' On a recent day at Argus, he was having an amiable chat with a counselor as he prepared for a job interview.

Observers attribute the school's success to a variety of factors. Stephen Phillips, the superintendent of alternative high schools and programs, credits ``an excellent individualized format that leads to continuous progress for students.'' Much of that, he says, is due to the effective therapeutic and counseling programs provided by the private Argus Community agency in which the school is housed.

The school places great emphasis on treating each of the more than 150 students as an individual of importance. ``The kids get a lot of personal attention,'' says Hope Eisman, who runs the school. ``I know every kid in this building, and every kid knows me.''

Students also benefit from small class size, and a creative, flexible curriculum based largely on their input. ``We're very concerned with talking with kids, listening to kids, and implementing the kinds of programs kids say they need,'' Ms. Eisman says.

Positive and negative reinforcement are key. Elaborate incentive programs show the students that good things do indeed come from good work. Rules and regulations are clearly enumerated; disciplinary measures are designed to fit the transgression, with peer censure being central.

Argus's students are referred by other schools and social service agencies, but they come to Argus voluntarily. To make it easy for the youths to attend, the school provides breakfast, lunch, car fare, and child care.

Most seem to be keenly aware that they are treading the margin between a life of despair and one of possibilities. ``I'm 20 - I don't have no more time left. I have to get my diploma and get out,'' says Celinda Bates, who is studying for the GED test, and hopes to go to college to prepare for a business career. She says at her previous high school, she felt no one cared whether she graduated. But at Argus, ``They make sure you get what you came here for.''

Celinda and other students say they benefit from encouragement in an unstructured atmosphere. She particularly enjoys working with computers, thanks largely to instructor Stephen Chesterson's approach. ``If they want to do work other than the assigned work, I let them,'' he says. In his classroom, the printers are just as likely to be cranking out poems and holiday cards as graphs.

Another striking aspect of the teaching style at Argus is the willingness of the teachers to eliminate formality. Art teacher Terry Brody, dressed in hippie garb, is busy wisecracking, throwing bear hugs, and rapping with the students. He intersperses history, math, and science as he shows individual students the finer points of working with a paintbrush.

Eisman rewards attendance and academic performance with everything from official recognition, T-shirts, and pizza parties to her ``Good News Tea,'' a formal ceremony complete with silver tea service, to which students and their parents are invited.

WITH students constantly under pressure to take the easy step into delinquency, Argus puts a premium on talk and counseling.

Regular group discussions allow the youths to speak their minds, and serve as a means of controlling behavior through positive peer pressure. Staff members say the most effective way to punish troublemakers is to require that they apologize to a group of fellow students for having let them down.

Students are constantly and individually coached, and watched for signs of problems. All of the teachers double as academic counselors, and the host Argus Community provides vocational and drug counselors who are themselves former substance abusers.

Buoyed by the impressive results so far, Eisman is planning new programs that students have requested. One will be a ``sciences institute'' for college-bound students, to increase awareness of health and medical careers.

Also under consideration is a ``business institute,'' which will involve youngsters in running an actual small business. Although most Argus students come from neighborhoods where the ownership of a business is nothing more than a shimmering dream, some have already demonstrated a ready acumen for handling money: A team of students in Argus's ``college bound'' program recently won second prize in a citywide stock market simulation, making a symbolic bundle on Wall Street while edging out teams from schools in some of the city's wealthiest areas.

As for Adolfo Ripley, he's looking forward to starting his first job soon, as a mailroom employee at the world-famous Carnegie Hall.

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