Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Last-Chance High: An Urban School District Success

A remarkable program in the San Francisco public school system is a Stay Out of Jail card for the city’s most at-risk teens.

October 19, 2006

Fog swirls across the southwestern flank of Twin Peaks, softening the outlines of San Francisco's Youth Guidance Center. Inside, on benches in front of the city's Juvenile Court, a dozen young men and women wait. Some stare into space; others swagger with the bravado of kids well acquainted with Juvie.

Inside the scuffed 1950s-era courtroom, the ambient odor is acrid, as if generations of teenage sweat glands have permeated the walls. The place is badly in need of a paint job. Oppressive? Definitely. Yet something instructive is happening as well. Seated around the counsel table, San Francisco Superior Court judge Susan Brial meets with assistant district attorneys and with lawyers from the local public defender's offices. Joining them are Ann Brown and Malik Edwards, student-services coordinators at San Francisco's Principals' Center Collaborative. The group conducts what seems more like a play rehearsal than judicial proceedings.

If a show trial is planned, it is drama with pedagogic purpose. The Principals' Center Collaborative is the place at-risk kids are coached and prodded into choosing wisely between high school and a possible stretch at a rural juvenile facility called Log Cabin Ranch. Mandatory court is a central requirement in the educational imperative of the collaborative, San Francisco's high school of last resort.

The collaborative was established in 1995, when San Francisco judge Ina Levin Gyemant, a former prosecutor, inaugurated what she called the Youth Treatment and Education Court. Levin Gyemant's purpose in creating YTEC was to humanize juvenile judicial proceedings by integrating an educational program, drug and family counseling, individual therapy, substance abuse testing and other related services. She recognized the crucial need to transform a haphazard judicial system into a comprehensive regimen. "We were taking kids headed for prison or dying on the streets," she says about her initial motivation, "and giving them the tools to live better lives."

As the 2006-07 school year opens, the merger of YTEC with two similar at-risk high school programs is under way. The combined program has taken the intensive individual treatment program and court appearances of YTEC and added a high school curriculum now funded and run by the San Francisco Unified School District. YTEC's grants, independently funded by the Secondary Schools Redesign Initiative, terminated last June and were picked up by the school district and private groups.

"The district has taken on the educational part of the program," says Program Director Margot Gibney, "and has embraced the YTEC model of combining drug treatment, counseling, and education." Levin Gyemant, now a mediator and still president of YTEC's board, is similarly upbeat. "I think it will be fine," she says about the future of a program she believes caught the attention of school district higher-ups through its history of achievement. "In many ways, the merger came about as the result of the program's success."

In its eight years as an independent program, YTEC dramatically affected the lives of hundreds of kids; youth authorities from San Francisco and beyond, including Australia, China, and Japan, regularly visited or studied the program. According to official statistics, drug use by students after six months in the program declined by 94 percent, while grade point averages were up for 98 percent of participants, and three out of four posted significant improvements in reading scores on standardized tests.

No less notably, the recidivism rate for YTEC students a year after graduation was a remarkably low 12 percent, compared to as much as nearly half for juveniles interned by San Francisco's Division of Juvenile Justice. Over the years, graduates have gone on to college, enrolled in vocational training, and even taken the program on the road, acting and rapping out their success stories at national juvenile law enforcement conferences.

If It's Friday, It Must Be Court

The key to both the pioneering program's success and its future within the Principals' Center Collaborative is mandatory court. The kids waiting on the benches are the subject of intense discussion going on between Brial and her team of lawyers and educators, who are running through a litany of behaviors, remedies, and tweaks to a kid's IEP -- the Individual Educational Program, which for special education students has always been a critical factor in the school success of those teenagers. Typical dialogue might go like this:

"Adelle violated his curfew over the weekend," the program's Malik Edwards says. "He's good during the week, but this is just not OK." The assistant DA at the table takes a decidedly unprosecutorial tack: "Let's not remand him into custody. Let's lock him up at home for several weekends." The public defender agrees but adds her own informal proviso: "He's old enough to know better -- let's require him to do homework." Edwards has another suggestion: "He needs to write an essay about what causes him to sabotage himself." Brial smiles and says, "I like it."

The back-and-forth continues as the time for hearings approaches. "OK, let's do it," the judge says to probation officer Chris Griffin, who returns minutes later with teenage wards in tow. Several are handcuffed. "No smiling," Griffin warns one girl, while the public defender reminds a sartorial low-rider to pull up his pants.

Tough love defines the proceedings. Griffin calls each kid in turn to step up and speak with the judge. "Bad language, blaming others, tardiness -- your report is horrendous," Brial says, chastising one of the young men in custody. "But I understand you want to come back to school," she adds, softening. The response is a monosyllabic "Yuh."

"Why do you like the program?" the judge probes, trying to maintain eye contact while the youth studies his feet. "I like the strictness," he says, the response sounding prompted. The judge takes the statement at face value. "Your word means something to me," she says, as she proposes "a contract between me and you that you're going to graduate."

"Do I have your word?" she asks. The response is another monosyllabic affirmation, and Brial lays out the terms established in conference. Edwards puts his own imprimatur on the plan: "You're not going to leave home from Friday until Monday," he says, staring hard at the young man. "That doesn't mean going out to buy your mother a quart of milk; it means staying at home. I'm going to keep calling you to make sure."

Edwards, an addiction specialist, is most concerned with keeping the kids away from drug-infested haunts. "When they don't have to continually look over their shoulders, they have a chance to find their true motivation," he says about the perils of street life.

As the hearing progresses, the judge talks with each kid, peppering the conversation with comments such as "You know I'm extremely fond of you" or "This is a beautiful report" or "Congratulations -- this is a tough program." Each student gets time with Brial, and when they are done, they join in what sounds like a football-huddle break. "Wrap!" they say in unison before filing out. Levin Gyemant says of a program grad attending college, "I once heard her say to a friend, 'I know the judge -- I can talk to her.' That kind of contact makes them feel important."

No Cell Phones, No Cells

Court may be the program's "tenderizer," but its instructional meat is served in the offices of the Principals' Center Collaborative, a group of trailers arrayed in the yard of a decommissioned school in San Francisco's Sunset District. During the intake period, the program's version of homeroom, students attend group meetings facilitated by treatment teams. Upon students' arrival, says Margaret Farruggio, the site administrator, "we relieve the students of cell phones and music players until day's end." It's a long day at the center, about eight hours -- the better to keep kids away from temptations on the street.

Seated beneath a banner reading "Building a Better World One Student at a Time," Farruggio explains that things on campus are running a little rough. The overall program is still suffering growing pains from the merger of YTEC and two other programs. The problem, she says, are the "five different administrative inputs, in which no one reports to the same person."

What is uplifting in the courtroom tends to sag somewhat in the harsh light of daily school life. Several kids are hanging out in the office trailer. One, slightly woozy from medication, is hanging onto the rail outside. "I need you off the stairs if you're going to pass out," a counselor warns.

Key to the program is a low ratio -- two to one -- of counselors, teachers, psychologists, and administrators to students; the ratio has stayed the same through the merger. This staffing doesn't come cheap: YTEC's estimated 2005-2006 budget alone, $1.47 million, amounted to about $16,500 spent per student -- far higher than the per pupil cost in regular San Francisco public schools, but, according to YTEC's Margot Gibney, it "pales in comparison to the $60,000 annually spent per ward of the Division of Juvenile Justice." High staffing levels are crucial, Gibney believes, because at-risk kids simply can't get the necessary help in regular high school. "You need smaller environments to build on strengths rather than just fix weaknesses," she says.

It is first period, and a counselor sits at the back of English teacher David Gonzales's classroom. Gonzales, a veteran San Francisco educator, doesn't really need the assistance. "For the past twenty years, I've worked with the toughest kids in town," explains Gonzales, a trim, informal man who is prepping his class to read Romeo and Juliet -- a work he says "fits easily into their gangbanger lives."

Only a half-dozen students attend that day; his average class size is fifteen, but the number of students on any given day fluctuates quite a bit; the population will grow as the school year continues and more kids get into trouble. Gonzales hands out copies of a sheet with words from the play and asks his class to use them in sentences. "How about enjoins?" he asks. Derek, a small youth incongruously clutching a teddy bear, gives a close-to-home example: "My probation officer enjoins me from going out after ten o'clock," he says. "That's good," Gonzales says with a laugh before throwing out several more bits of Elizabethan arcanery.

Today, in second-period biology, there are only three boys, but Thomás Enguídanos, an engaging pedagogue, interacts easily with them, reminding them of a previous field trip. He asks them about pond water they collected and viewed through a microscope. Enguídanos makes no secret about his method of inquiry: "I'm going to task you to slow down, observe things, and learn what goes on."

He reinforces the discussion by showing a documentary about life in an ordinary meadow. The kids are absorbed as they watch ladybugs copulate to an opera soundtrack. One of the boys wonders, "Do they feel pleasure when they get it on?" Another student, however, begins to sag, his head sinking onto his desktop. "You still with us?" Enguídanos asks. A groggy response prompts him to turn the lights on. "Heads up, please, gentlemen. You make me feel like I can't show you movies." When the discussion flags, Enguídanos tells them to take out notebooks. "Okay," he says, "if you can't talk about it, we'll do a written assignment."

The bell rings, and the kids shuffle out. Enguídanos shrugs off the inattention. "A teenager with his head down will turn into a nap," he says knowingly. His seniority in the school district qualifies him to teach at any of San Francisco's elite high schools, but for five years, he has chosen to stay at YTEC and the center.

The Parent Factor

The fierce loyalty to the program's ideals is evident at the lead-up to the year's first parent's night, in mid-October. In the afternoon, a parent calls Malik Edwards to beg off: She says she can't afford the bus fare, and Edwards's reply is curt. Later he explains why the program emphasizes parent participation in programs such as family counseling. In most cases, he points out, "the kids bring problems here from a dysfunctional home life."

By 5:30 P.M., home and school lives are colliding as parents begin arriving at the center. Greeted inside a trailer/classroom, they are first taken to classrooms where student paintings are displayed. Jasmine, a big girl in a red shirt, excitedly points out a splatter painting with her name written in a field of hearts. "This is her put-out," teacher Elizabeth Summers remarks about Jasmine's work. "When she first got here, she was silent; today, she's really expressing herself."

Derek, the teddy-bear boy, shows off his own artistic achievements to his parents. "Mine is the Golden Gate Bridge," he says, proudly pointing out a pencil drawing. Derek's mother looks gratefully at her son. "Not too many kids here," she says about the student-teacher ratio. How does she think her son is doing? "He's changing like this," she says with her palms up, "and not like this," turning her palms symbolically downward.

Later, family groups cluster in a classroom set up with tables and chairs. The parents seem slightly ill at ease as staff members bustle around, setting out a buffet, but then the dinner gets under way with a staff introduction. The evening has a church-social feel; music teacher Garth Applegate plays his guitar as various teachers, counselors, and other staff members chat with parents.

Two students pass out questionnaires about the war in Iraq. "We're doing a report in our U.S. Democracy class tomorrow," explains one of them, Hieu Nguyen, who later, upon graduation in December 2005, became a member of the Leadership Program, a YTEC spin-off designed for graduates who want to stay connected.

His story is emblematic. By the time he was thirteen, he was failing in school, and he fell in with a tough crew and began drinking, cutting classes, and fighting. He says regular high school was "boring and hard," and in 2003 he wound up in drug court, where he was given a choice of YTEC or "the ranch" (Log Cabin Ranch, located in a forested area about an hour south of San Francisco).

Nguyen caught on at the school, and by summer 2005, he had worked and studied his way off probation. By that time, his reading was up to ninth-grade level. "Reading is still a struggle for me," he admits, but he passed his courses, received a diploma, and enrolled at San Francisco City College. A program success story, he says the experience was "in some ways even tougher than regular high school." The good thing, he adds, "is that you can talk to the staff, and they actually listen to what you have to say."

Richard Rapaport is a political and architectural writer who contributes regularly to Edutopia.

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