Last chances, first rate Richmond’s program for troubled students has a rate of success of 89 percent
By Zachary Reid | June 14, 2008 | Times-Dispatch
Alicia Berger wants to go to dental school.
Josh Carter wants to be a firefighter.
Brad Fellows wants everyone to know.
Fellows is in charge of making sure Alicia, Josh and 328 other Richmond students find success in the classroom.
It’s not the easiest challenge, considering some of the students under his supervision have had a hard time in the past finding a classroom.
Fellows is principal of the Capital City Program, Richmond’s last stop for delinquents, truants and academic causalities. The contract school – it’s run for the city school system by Nashville-based Community Education Partners – takes in the students no one other school can reach.
The school system’s previous attempts at outsourcing this chore didn’t pan out well. After the 2003-04 school year, the School Board decided to make a change. On short notice, Capital City opened in time for the next year with a simple mandate: Take the city’s toughest students and turn them around.
The difference, say the people who work at Capital city, is the approach. They know because they lived through the old results. The school’s staff includes five retired Richmond school principals and more than a dozen former city teachers. The big difference is time. CCP keeps students for at least 180 days – a whole school year – not the weekslong attempts previous programs used. A student who enters in December, as Josh did, stays until the following December before returning to his old school.
“If you want to change attitudes, you certainly need them a little longer,” said Frank Butts, once the principal at John F. Kennedy High School and now the Liaison between CCP and the city school system.
“This is not a revolving door,” says Fellows, who lived through disruptive student behavior during 14 years as principal at Albert Hill Middle School before being hired to head Capital City.
In its four years, the program has been remarkably successful. Of the 1,257 students who have gone through the program 1,115 – 89 percent – have either graduated or are still enrolled in school.
Without a program as intensive as Capital City, Fellows said, “a lot of them would not have made it.”
Alicia and Josh said they would have.
At the beginning of the school year, neither seemed destined for academic success. They didn’t disappoint.
In December, Josh, an eighth-grader at Thompson Middle School, was caught up in a bathroom prank gone b ad. Facing expulsion, he landed in the Capital City Program.
In February, Alicia, a 10th-grader at Huguenot High School, joined him after her preoccupation with ditching finally caught up with her.
“I think I probably would have failed,” Josh said.
“I probably would have been in the 10th grade again,” Alicia said.
Instead, both are headed into summer vacation with thoughts of working, preparing for life beyond school and staying out of trouble.
That’s a complete reversal from last summer, both said.
“Last summer, all I did was lay around the house and go to the pool,” said Josh. “I’m going to get on my feet this summer.”
Alicia, too, is planning to spend the summer hard at work.
For that, her mother is thankful.
Carla Berger said she wasn’t certain in February that Capital City was the right place for her daughter, but the experience has turned out well.
“Sometimes, everybody needs a wakeup call,” she said. “This was her wakeup call.”
“It has changed her as far as being more responsible. She knows she has to go to school. She knows she has to get an education.”
The change in demeanor has come in the classroom. Each is staffed by a teacher and a full-time counselor, affording students more attention than they were getting in their old schools.
“It’s a good learning environment,” Alicia said. “It’s basically like everybody helps each other out. It’s not like there are so many students, the teachers can’t help everybody.”
More attention, assistant principal Alberta Person said, is often the one thing students most need.
“They’re smart kids,” she said. “They have to learn to behave, to function. We try to give them those skills here.”
No one wants to go to the Capital City Program. Housed in the old Katherine Johnson building in Gilpin Court, it’s as short on amenities as it is on initial appeal to reluctant students.
“They’re not happy to come here, “ Fellows said. “that’s just the reality of it.”
To ease the transition, students spend a week in orientation. Away from the other students, they learn about the school and the course of study they’ll have to follow.
“They have to learn a whole new set or rules,” said Person, who gave up retirement to join Fellows and Butts the summer the school opened. She, too, is a former principal, having led Woodville Elementary School.
If nothing else, Capital city is structured. All 330 students dress the same – khakis and dark green shirts – and are treated the same. They enter through metal detectors and go straight to their classes.
Each of the four segments of the school – middle and high school boys and girls – has its own section of the building. Josh and Alicia, on different floors and different wings, never cross paths at school.
If students have to move around the building, they are escorted by a staff member.
“Look at the profile of the child who’s here – there has to be a different approach,” Butts said. “Some of these children have real needs.”
“The needs of the children come out of the needs of the community,’ Person said. “What we have seen is a tremendous need for children to have more choices.”
The children, though, don’t always agree.
“They go kicking and screaming,” said Thomas Beatty, the principal at Thompson.
But Capital City is better situated to deal with the kicking and screaming than the city’s comprehensive schools.
“We have students who sometimes are not ready to work with the population of students already here,” Beatty said. “When you have a child who’s chronically disruptive, it makes it much more difficult to teach.”
Sending nine or 10 students a year to Capital City, Beatty said, allows him to run a more efficient school.
The proof, said Fellows, is in the numbers.
“It’s not by any accident that accreditation jumped” after CCP opened he said.
The year before Capital City opened, only one of the city’s six comprehensive high schools was fully accredited. After last school year, all five still open were.
Critics say the difference is the school system pushing its problem students on Capital City, but the numbers don’t back up that claim. For one thing, the 330 students make up less than 2 percent of citywide enrollment. For another, students are still tested.
“One of the myths is, the kids leave school and duck the SOLs,” Butts said. “No Child Left Behind, the SOLs, they don’t have a test for reluctant learners. They have to take the same test as everybody else.”
“At first, I didn’t want to come here,” Josh said. “I was like, no, just kick me out. I’ll do eighth grade again next year.”
In less than two weeks, though, he adjusted.
“Over here, the teachers teach you in different ways, “ he said. “They’re behind you 100 percent.”
The evidence for Carter is on his report card. The C’s, D’s and F’s he was earning at Thompson are now A’s and B’s.
The key, said administrators at Capital City and at other city schools, is figuring out the problem before trying to fix it. That takes time, but time is one luxury Capital City has.
“You can remove a child from a setting,” said Beatty, “but if you‘re not addressing their needs, what are you doing?”
“The kids who come to us, come because of a need,” Person said. “If we’re going to turn them around, we need to get to the root of that need. If we don’t fix the need, we haven’t done anything.”