Beyond the point of no return

Schools today are quicker to expel problem students. But what happens to these kids once they're out the door?

Eighteen-year-old Ivory recently spent nine months working full-time at a clothing store in her New York City neighborhood. Many of the students who had once been her classmates were still in school during those months, but Ivory had stopped attending classes.

Earlier in her school career she had been both suspended and expelled from school. Those two lengthy absences left her shy of enough credits to complete her high school degree. When she realized - just before her seventeenth birthday - that she would not be able to graduate with her class, she became discouraged and quit school altogether.

Today in the United States, more students are being expelled from school, like Ivory was - and for a wider variety of infractions. Just between 1998 and 2000, the most recent data available, expulsions nationwide jumped from 87,298 to 97,177, according to the Elementary and Secondary School Survey by the US Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.

One reason for the increase, experts say, is the crackdown on student behavior since the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. Schools' "zero-tolerance" policies toward violence have meant that more students are asked to leave school - temporarily or permanently - for offenses that in the past might have been disciplined less austerely.

Other experts suggest that the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, with its provisions requiring schools to report violent acts and sanctioning those that report too many, gives schools additional incentive to expel difficult students. Their worry is that expulsions, if they lead more students to drop out, will result in many more students being left behind educationally.

As a result, the need for school alternatives has grown on two fronts. On one side is increased demand for interim services that some districts provide to students during periods of suspension or expulsion. But there's also a second consideration. Because suspension or expulsion can derail students who are already faltering on the high school graduation track - as in the case of Ivory, perhaps hindering their ability to complete courses on time - services geared to adult high school dropouts are also expected to be more in demand.

Yet expulsion does not turn out badly for all students. Nationwide, the alternatives offered to students who, for whatever reason, cannot or will not remain in an ordinary classroom vary widely. Outcomes for these students are as divergent as the programs themselves.

Tale of an expulsion

For sixth-grader Stormie Bullock, expulsion created only minor ripples in her school experience - thanks to an intervention by her mother.

Stormie was expelled from her Huntington, Ind., middle school last October for giving a classmate a medication that her mother had absentmindedly swept into her school notebook while Stormie was home with a cold. To Stormie and her classmate, the pill seemed harmless, "like an aspirin," says Stormie's mother, Machelle Bullock. But school authorities took it seriously enough to expel Stormie for three months.

When her daughter was referred to a "transitional school" in Huntington, Mrs. Bullock objected.

"It's bad," Bullock says. "The students here in our transitional [program] were there for weapons, drugs - you know, real drugs." Her daughter, she insisted, did not belong in such company. After some negotiations, the school offered Stormie one-on-one instruction instead.

As much as Bullock was outraged at the authorities who expelled her daughter, she heaps praise on the teacher who provided the girl's one-on-one instruction. In January, Stormie returned to school without academic difficulties. Today her mother laments only "the psychological impact" on Stormie as a result of time away from school and peers.

In many districts, separating expelled students from the general school population is a requirement. In other cases, like Stormie's, instruction may take place on school grounds but only after regular school hours. This concerns some educators, who worry that time away from school in separate programs - and sometimes exclusively in off-campus settings - discourages students from returning to their original classrooms.

Especially for students as young as Stormie, they point out, alienation from familiar surroundings and classmates can be a difficult experience - one that could permanently derail some students who might otherwise have put minor disciplinary charges behind them.

For high school students, however, the potential consequences are even graver. Because they are not required to return to school after age 16, it can be easy to turn an expulsion into a permanent vacation. This is particularly true for students, like Ivory, who may face a mountain of incomplete school assignments or a credit deficit after a long absence stemming from an expulsion.

There are alternative programs, however, that some educators say present appealing options for high school students - especially those who were not thriving in a traditional classroom setting. Some students also benefit by being separated from classmates who may have exerted a negative influence.

In Lakewood, Colo., for example, McLain Community High School is an alternative school that offers a range of special services to students across Jefferson County. One is JeffCo Net Online Academy, a program for high school students whose needs conflict with a traditional high school schedule. The academy's students include special education students, teen mothers, athletes in training, and a small number of expelled students.

Among the educational advantages of an online program are that students can pace themselves and repeat lessons that challenge them, says Scott Thompson, academy administrator. The solitary aspect of online learning can also be a plus, Mr. Thompson asserts.

"I've had several students where I used online education as a tool during their expulsion, and they've turned right around and said, 'Boy I really enjoyed that and I want to continue in that,' " Thompson says.

Of the expelled students he sees, some "find that the reason they were getting in trouble was their old high school," he says. Sometimes expelled students ask to remain in the academy beyond the term of their expulsion, Thompson says. They find that an independent alternative program offers relief from a tense and distracting high school environment.

Adult ed for teens

While some of Thompson's students choose to leave a traditional high school, other expelled students in different cities feel they have few options. That's one reason Allen Sinor's district offers adult education programs. Dr. Sinor is director of the adult education division of Jefferson Union High School District in Daly City, Calif., and a former principal of Jefferson High School. Enough students there fail to graduate - or leave high school - to warrant a "bridge program," which prepares students to take the GED exams after their 18th birthdays.

Students usually opt for his program when they realize they will not graduate on time, Sinor says.

Still, Sinor says, many students are glad to come and seem grateful for the opportunity that adult programs offer. Adult programs uphold more than adequate academic standards without requiring the "seat time" that high school requires, he explains.

Other expelled students endorse some of the preferences Sinor and Thompson describe. Ivory, who worked in retail in New York, later earned the equivalent of a high school diploma by enrolling in a GED program offered by Covenant House, a multiservice nonprofit for youths.

She found the program had its advantages. In school, she says, "I was just fighting all the time." The program was different: The other students, she explains, were more serious. "They are all there for the same thing."

Fernando, another Covenant House GED student, agrees. "I feel better [that] I got my GED instead of a high school diploma because it was comfortable," he says. "In high school problems would come to me."

GED vs. high school diploma

These students may not miss high school academically. But they could be losing out on some things by not going. For one, studies show that students who complete high school equivalency programs tend to earn less in the working world throughout the course of their lives than those who receive high school diplomas.

For another, the very thing that some students find appealing about adult and online programs - the fact that they do not require day-to-day attendance - can be a negative. Independent programs do not encourage the social development these students may most need.

At least one GED student says teenagers are better off in school. Eighteen-year-old Ayisha entered the Covenant House GED program at 16, because she knew she would complete it sooner than she could finish high school. Today, she is a program graduate. But she urges her 14-year-old sister to stay in school - and not only because an Army recruiter told Ayisha it would have been better to have earned a high school diploma.

The overall experience of pursuing a GED as opposed to a high school degree, she says, compares unfavorably. "The [GED] program was good," she says. "But it's not for a young person."

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