Helping troubled South End students get their school-groove back close to home

In these difficult times, middle school students are facing more problems than past generations of early teens. Drugs, sex, gangs and family issues are only the tip of the iceberg for students in transition into adolescence. Most of them adequately handle such pressures and are able to stay on the right track in school.

But there are a large handful of students who have difficulty with these issues and are affected more severely. The result often manifests itself at school in the form of chronic truancy or behavior issues with peers and teachers. This usually ends up in the expulsion or long-term suspension of the student. Often such kids can't afford to miss any more school than they have already.

A solid alternative

In the past, these students might have been sent to an alternative school, or they may have just dropped out of school altogether before earning even one high school credit. Such students need a place to go where they can recover from their mistakes and poor choices and get their lives in order.

This scenario was becoming a major problem in Seattle Schools. A solution was needed, and the Center for Career Alternatives (CCA) stepped in to provide one.

Located at 901 Rainier Ave. S., two blocks south of Dearborn, CCA is a non-profit agency that works with at-risk adults and youth of varying ages. The building looks more like a business than a school, and the re-entry class is held in a modified boardroom.

There is no outside playground, and lockers don't line the halls. Students must use the Rainier Community Center for physical education activities and bring their school supplies to and from school daily. Typically there is only one classroom teacher and a case manager to assist students to overcome obstacles, however this year a change has been made.

Aaron Rogers was granted permission from Seattle University to conduct his student teaching experience at the re-entry program. Funded by the Seattle School District, the CCA re-entry program is free to its students who are referred by the school that has expelled or suspended them. Currently the re-entry program is working at a maximum capacity of 14 students.

Getting help close to home

But what is the re-entry program exactly? In 1999, the CCA, in conjunction with the Seattle School District, created the Middle School Re-entry Program for South End students. Up to that time, expelled or suspended students were sent to John Marshall Alternative School, near Green Lake, to work their way back to the district's good graces.

The commute was quite long and despite school transportation, several students had difficulty attending everyday. To help these South End students, the CCA worked with Aimee Hirabayashi of the Seattle School District to create the current CCA Re-entry Program.

If expelled students wish to attend a Seattle Public School again, they must satisfactorily complete the re-entry program. To accomplish this, the program focuses on academics with a large behavior modification component to help students remain in their public school assignment. Supervised by CCA Deputy Director Peter Tsai, the re-entry program has helped roughly 200 students earn their way back into the Seattle School District.

"This program provides an opportunity for these young people to get back on track and return to regular schools," Tsai asserted.

Both school district and CCA officials believe that many of these troubled students would have dropped out rather than attend a school so far from home. CCA's work at re-directing these students was recognized by the city when the re-entry program won the award from Seattle Human Services Coalition for 2002 Innovative Program of the Year.

Inside the classroom

Teacher Mark Sugiyama at CCA has been working in the re-entry program for the past four years. He has witnessed first hand the positive changes in the CCA students.

"These students come in with family issues, gang affiliation and juvenile detention issues or just an attitude that it doesn't matter whether or not they get an education. Many of these students already see themselves as failures in life," Sugiyama explained. "They see no need to struggle through the rigors of an education to succeed in a society that they perceive has abandoned them. What will an education do for them in jail or out on the street? These students need to find, within themselves, a reason to get out of the cycle of failure and defeat they have experienced most of their lives."

CCA's re-entry program shows these students that they are not failures, but rather, important members of society who just need the right tools to cope with life's obstacles. To do this, students learn to trust in their abilities and to work on their weaknesses. They learn that all students have academic weakness, but that does not mean they are failures. Most importantly, they learn that students who seek help to overcome their obstacles are the ones who succeed, not only in school, but also in life.

CCA students also learn that much of their behavior problems in school came from their frustration at their lack of school success. The CCA staff stresses that if students work hard and seek out the appropriate help, success can, and will, be achieved. For his part, Sugiyama has used conventional techniques along with outside sources - including drama instructors, Pacific Science Center kits and field trips - to expose his students to different methods of problem solving.

Unfortunately, the re-entry program cannot save every student or solve all of the Seattle School District's problems. Once students leave the safety of CCA they often must still face the same obstacles of family dysfunction, drugs and alcohol, peer confrontations and school attendance. However, Sugiyama and his fellow CCA staff members make a point to remind their students that they must put into practice what they have learned in the program and have faith that it will work in the long run.

The academic road is not always easy for these kids. With the efforts of local organizations like the CCA, their early mistakes do not have to impact the rest of their lives.

Richard Maltby may be reached via[[In-content Ad]]