Beyond what's in the books
NAPERVILLE, ILL — The kids in the back are acting up, but Katherine Lin forges gamely ahead. The junior stands amid chest-high drafting tables in the design class and says, somewhat incongruously, "This is a story about Joe who went to a party and got busted."
A freshman utters a mild sympathetic epithet, and a burst of titters burrows around the room.
Katherine keeps going. As the tale unfolds, it turns out that Joe - who doesn't drink because a relative was killed by a drunk driver - didn't actually get busted himself. He went to a party, found kids drinking, and went home and told his parents.
Joe's parents then called the police. The police then busted the party, en masse.
"What do you think of Joe's decision to leave the party?" Katherine asks.
At this moment, student volunteers throughout Naperville North High School in suburban Chicago are asking other classes that same question. It's Wednesday morning, which means it's time for "First Class" - a biweekly, 20-minute, student-led discussion about everything from teen suicide to diversity.
First Class is only one part of North's wide-ranging, intensive effort to teach teens about the nonacademic aspects of life. In modern America, the many demands and challenges of adolescence mean that it's not enough for a high school to just offer Spanish and social studies any more. They have to build character. They have to instill moral values. They have to identify and help violence-prone youth. The result is a ubiquitous and varied array of programs: from simple character education to student-mediation efforts to psychological profiling - a trend that has gathered force across the US in the year since Columbine.
North, like many big public schools, requires students to take a comprehensive health and wellness class. It sets aside time for student-led philosophical discussions, such as First Class. Then there's "Snowball" - a semi-annual event in which a select group of students and staff travel to an off-site location, and spend a weekend engaging in trust exercises and lots of talk.
Naperville North has a phalanx of guidance counselors, who offer advice on much more than which community college is for you. The administration even hands out "You Make a Difference" awards to kids who aren't necessarily great athletes or top students. One girl got one for being particularly cheery when greeting friends and teachers in the hall.
Most of these efforts predate last year's tragic student shootings at Columbine High. The school began planning First Class four years ago, for instance. But the tragedy has given the programs new emphasis.
"We just know now that we have to give kids a forum for talking about this kind of stuff," says social studies teacher and First Class director Warren Scott.
From sublime to 'totally lame'
Kids find some aspects of "this stuff" more gripping than others. Students said that while they generally liked the idea behind First Class, it is not always the most memorable part of their day.
Not surprisingly, they don't like all the prechosen topics. Several singled out a recent discussion of personal space for special mention. "They actually made us get up and walk past each other like we do in the hallway to show how people need their personal space," says platinum-haired junior Teri Bork. "That was totally lame."
Other topics got higher marks. Most kids liked a discussion that centered on a February incident in which a North junior posted an ominous threat - "If you think what happened at Columbine was serious, that will be like a joke compared to this" - on the school computer.
On this particular Wednesday, the subject seems to fall in the middle range of interest. Back in design class, the opinions have started flowing after a period of silence of uncomfortable length.
Most remarks center on Joe's decision to tell his parents about the drinking party, and thus get his friends in trouble.
"That was so stupid," says a bold freshman boy. "I don't think his parents should have called the cops. They just ruined his life. No one is going to talk to him now."
(In a class down the hall, the ineffable weirdness of parents is being discussed in even harsher terms. Parents are "just kind of dolty" says one bespectacled brunette. Another girl, who has perhaps 15 studs in her left ear, agrees. "I just think they're bitter that we can have fun, and they can't," she says.)
When the discussion ends, students lean over their drafting tables and take an ungraded test on drinking and driving. One frosh answers "true" to this statement: "Alcohol makes you more sexy." He scratches out his answer and puts in "false" when told he is wrong. His buddy leans over and says, "Not if the other person is drinking, too." They laugh, and head for their next class as the bell rings and the hourly student stampede begins.
The point of all this, say administrators, is at least partly to get kids to think about the consequences of their actions. This is a characteristic with which teenagers throughout history have not usually been imbued.
True, some may wonder whether 50 minutes a day can actually pump teenagers full of moral virtue - and there's little data evaluating such programs' effectiveness. But in an era where rage and thoughtlessness are increasingly familiar features, many argue that character education at least can't hurt.
Schools today try hard to get teenagers to understand that much of what they do has a larger social context. Being late to class is not just against the rules - it's rude to those who are on time. Using drugs can cause parents pain. Thoughtless sex might not be emotionally simple for your partner.
When family time equals brandy
This is why Steve Mazzarella stands in front of his class and tells them how his grandfather used him as a packhorse for brandy.
Mr. Mazz teaches sophomores health and wellness. He is, by many accounts, one of the most popular teachers in the school. He's the kind of person students say they would go to in a crisis - if they went to an adult at all. (Guidance counselors feature far lower on their list of lifelines, they say. A number felt the counselors were far too busy to listen to them.) He is slightly zany and uses the word "Pooh" as a verb, as in, "Have you guys Poohed today?" This refers to reading a homily from his Winnie the Pooh calendar - his icebreaking way of starting a class.
But the irrepressibility only goes so far. The content of his curriculum is deadly serious. Every 30 minutes he stops class, for instance, and chooses a student to tie a red ribbon on a pole. This is intended to make concrete the fact that every half hour, a drunk driver is involved in a fatal accident.
Today's assignment is to write down three negative effects of the use of drugs or alcohol. As the students scribble away, he talks about visiting his grandfather in the summer, and how they would go to the liquor store. His grandfather would give him two brandy bottles to hold, and two more to tuck under his arms.
"My grandfather was an alcoholic," he says. "Brandy was his drink."
Now that he is older, says Mazzarella, he understands how much drunkenness affected his grandfather's behavior. Most of all, he now resents how much time they both lost to alcohol - time for the normal things that grandfathers and grandsons do when one of them isn't slumped over in a stupor.
These efforts are far from the only institutional lifelines that Naperville North tries to extend to its student body. There's the green-card system - officially known as the Student Assistance Behavioral Observation Form.
Green cards are issued to kids who show warning signs of developing problems in their behavior, attendance, health, or academics. Any teacher or administrator can fill one out.
Every Thursday, a committee meets to review the week's green-card total. If any kid shows a pattern that may indicate drug use or other major trouble, the parents are notified.
Kids see green cards as discipline. School officials insist that's not the whole story. "We're not out to get a kid, or label a kid. It's a system of caring," says Sandy Stelmach, student assistant program coordinator for the district.
Other officials say they're particularly interested in something called the Asset Approach. This program, developed by a Minnesota-based institute, centers on 40 qualities or experiences that young people need to be successful in life.
Students fill out surveys that rate how many assets - parental involvement, communication with teachers, etc. - they have. This provides a benchmark for the student and school alike. "If the average kid says he's got 21 assets this year, we can shoot for 26 next year, and 30 the year after that," says John "Jack" Lorenz, North's outgoing principal.
And sometimes, amazingly, it all works.
On his third strike
Every teacher knows how tough it is to keep going, some days. The future of all your students seems preordained. All the effort and meetings and paper seem like a waste of time that might be better spent looking for cheap package tours to cities where it doesn't snow in April.
Then Ricardo Trevino washes up in your classroom. He's on his third high school. His father left him who knows when, his mother lives who knows where, and his grandmother drives him to Naperville every day so he can have a chance.
His brother is serving two life sentences for gunning down rival gang members. Ricardo is standing at the top of the on-ramp to that same road.
His grade-point average is not great, but at least it's not zero.
He makes a connection with one of his teachers, Lynne Rains, and she draws him out. He likes to talk. He likes to teach. And kids like listening to him tell about the worlds of gangs and violence. He starts taking his show to elementary schools.
His grade point doubles - still not great, but graduation is in sight.
It wasn't green cards per se, it wasn't the Asset program per se, it wasn't Health and Wellness. It was everything.
Earlier this month he went to Springfield and won an Illinois state title for a presentation about gangs and violence.
"It is different here," says Ricardo. "At my old schools, the teachers didn't care because they didn't think you cared." But here, "they didn't judge me. I think the teachers accepted me more and that made me want to try more."
And let's be blunt - there's just more money behind the Naperville North educational experience.
"I never had any of this before," says Ricardo, gesturing around the massive school.
Ms. Rains, his favorite teacher and trusted adviser, gets the last word.
"I don't even look at grade point when I let kids into my class," she says. "They are so much more than a number."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society