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Wednesday, April 2, 2008 | The same question echoed over and over when ninth-grader Capreece Handy stepped onto the campus of her new school: What are you in for?

For Handy, a petite teen with blue-streaked braids, the answer was fighting. For others, it was drugs or knives. Handy knew the rumors about Alternative Learning for Behavior and Attitude Community Day School, one option for kids expelled from San Diego Unified schools: that it was “juvie” for “bad kids,” that it wasn’t a real school.

“My dad, he didn’t want me to go here,” Handy said. “But now, I’m kind of used to ALBA. San Diego High is so big, with lots of people scrunched up. Coming here was easier.”

ALBA is an unusual school to get used to — a high school without backpacks, gym class or prom. Here, students expelled from other schools spend a semester or two, learning in small classes under close supervision, then return to their former schools. The goal is to diagnose and treat the academic and mental health issues that fuel their misbehavior. In the shadow of Mann Middle School in City Heights, tiny classes meet in a cluster of grayish trailers splashed with hand-painted murals. Computers are scarce, and athletic fields are usually unavailable. One school trustee has called it a kennel.

Yet some teens hesitate to leave. Programs like ALBA are growing more popular as cash-strapped districts seek to retain student attendance funds, by keeping expelled students enrolled in alternative district-run programs, instead of referring them to county-run schools tailored to at-risk students. Across the county, the worst offenses usually send students to county-run schools: brandishing a knife, for example, or selling drugs. Lesser offenses are handled differently by each school district. In Sweetwater, for instance, expelled students reenroll in other Sweetwater schools, a strategy meant to give misbehaving kids a fresh start.

Now, forced to restructure under the federal No Child Left Behind law after failing to meet testing goals, ALBA plans to expand its clientele beyond expelled students, completely transforming the tiny school’s directive from punishment to opportunity. If approved by San Diego Unified’s school board, the new plan would allow any at-risk student under age 16 to attend, not just those who’ve been expelled.

It would be a seismic shift for ALBA, where even parents who fought bitterly to keep their kids from the much-maligned school now say they wish their children could stay.

“Nothing but little knuckleheads that’s headed to juvenile hall. That’s the impression that I got,” said Eric Handy, Capreece’s father. “There was a real negative reputation connected to it.”

Capreece was expelled after slugging a staff member who intervened in a student fight. Capreece claims it was an accident; her father protested that Capreece had never fought before, and was only defending herself. Eric Handy pressed the San Diego Unified board to keep Capreece at San Diego High. The board was unconvinced, and sent her to ALBA. The father was crushed.

Yet months later, Eric Handy is surprised to see Capreece excited about ALBA, attentive to her homework, and loath to return to San Diego High, a sprawling, 3,000-student complex with six distinct schools. One of her favorite classes at ALBA is career and life management, an elective class on life skills such as budgeting, career options and healthy choices taught by Joanne Johnson, who urges her students to write ALBA raps, choreograph ALBA dances, even hold an ALBA cook-off, Capreece said.

In Johnson’s classroom, Capreece watched an online slide show about the Iraq war, recounting a widow’s memories of her soldier husband. Johnson clicked over to an interactive display made of squares, each listing a fallen soldier’s name.

“Whoa,” Capreece Handy said. “That’s a lot of squares.”

Johnson, now in her eighth year at ALBA, said Capreese’s story isn’t unique.

“Strangely enough, I’ve seen kids who want to come back here. Kids who want to stay,” Johnson said. “Honestly, I wish my son could come here.”

The Revolving Door

Since its inception, the school has already evolved from a handful of storefront classrooms scattered through the city to three distinct centers — a middle school, a high school, and an elementary center, mostly populated by sixth graders. Its principal, Anisha Dalal, has struggled to kick ALBA’s punitive image, and to beautify its shabby campuses. Flower boxes perch on ledges, tended by teachers.

“When I first came here, I saw kids with hoods on their heads, really in their own shell. It was a very cold, sterile environment. That really struck me,” said Dalal, who became ALBA’s principal in 2003. “I thought, ‘We’ve got the most at-risk students in the district — and this is what we have, to work with?’”

Despite her efforts, ALBA still looks dour at first glance. Parents wince at the dilapidated trailers at ALBA Middle, located off Clairemont Drive near Marston Middle School, said Gayle LeVeque, the school’s head counselor. There are few student clubs. Forbidden from bringing their own lunches, lest they smuggle in drugs or alcohol, students pan the bland sandwiches served up by the school. One student, making his pitch for student president, declared that he had a dream: Better lunches.

Yet what ALBA lacks in extras, it makes up in essentials, Vice Principal Elizabeth Larkin said. Because students spend longer days at ALBA than at a typical school, the state allocates more dollars per student to the school, allowing the school to bulk up on staff.

Classes are tiny compared with the typical San Diego Unified high school, with as few as five students to a classroom. Mental health professionals assess each student, identifying learning disorders and emotional problems. Dalal estimated that 80 percent of ALBA students suffer from a mental illness, ranging from depression to oppositional defiance. Teachers, in turn, are trained to defuse confrontational students, avoiding power struggles in the classroom.

“It’s easy to get along with people, and classes are good because they’re small,” said Lizeth Pinedo, ALBA’s student president. “My mom wants me to stay longer.”

Under state rules, she can’t, Dalal said. Turnover is a persistent problem for ALBA. Most teens stay for a single semester; none outlast a year. Enrollment volleys up and down, with new students arriving throughout the semester. At the end of March, 36 middle schoolers attended ALBA. By June, the trailers will likely hold 100 pre-teens, Larkin said, the product of spring mischief.

If students arrive unexpectedly, they also disappear abruptly, reinstated at their schools. Expelled teens can contest their expulsions, but the hearings are often delayed for weeks, Dalal said. In the meantime, students are enrolled at ALBA. If the school board decides against the expulsion, a teen is pulled out of ALBA and returned to their regular school.

“It’s the one thing I really can’t get used to,” said Zenani Mzube, who teaches high school English at ALBA.

Suspended Expulsion

  • How It Works: Not every student who is expelled is banned from school. Sometimes, the school board suspends an expulsion. What does that mean? The student gets a second chance, and is assigned to a program or school to be “rehabilitated.” For many students in San Diego Unified, that’s ALBA, a special school where students attend classes for only a semester or two. If they succeed at ALBA, students are reinstated at their old schools, and their expulsion record can be expunged. If they misbehave again, they could be permanently expelled and sent to county-run schools, specifically aimed at teaching at-risk kids.

Student turnover makes it impossible to teach novels, she said. Instead, she crafts shorter units: a lesson on fairy tales such as “Little Red Riding Hood,” which Mzube frames as “the ways we are taken off our paths, and what the wolf symbolizes.” Her classroom is papered with posters of Malcolm X and a student-produced trifold titled “Confronting My Education Through Experience,” in which a girl reveals “When I was little, I was deaf. They didn’t figure it out until I was like 5” and “My boyfriend cusses me out sometimes, but I don’t let it bother me.”

“You want to see them reinstated, of course,” Mzube said. “But a student comes in, and they can affect the entire rhythm of the class.”

No Exception from No Child Left Behind

Despite their different mission and makeup, schools like ALBA are held to the same standards under No Child Left Behind as ordinary schools. ALBA is expected to improve year by year, regardless of the rampant turnover in its student body, and the challenges that make ALBA categorically different than most schools.

No Child Left Behind wasn’t designed with alternative schools in mind, said Sean Morrill, senior director of operations for the county’s Juvenile Court and Community Schools. Testing is a poor gauge of a school’s effects, he said, if the kids taking tests in the spring aren’t the same kids enrolled in the fall.

ALBA failed its NCLB goals not because of low test scores, but because it didn’t have enough of them, Dalal explained. High school exit exams, one factor under NCLB, are counted for students enrolled in the fall, who then take the test in the spring. ALBA has few such students.

Under the law, faltering schools must outline how they’ll restructure, in a bid to improve. Some schools, like Gompers Middle, opted to become charter schools; others have replaced staff. For ALBA, the plan entails a single, centralized ALBA site, new computers and online classes, and ultimately, an expanded mission: Serving at-risk students, not just those who’ve been expelled. Any student with emotional, social or academic problems who would flourish at ALBA could go there, Dalal said. The proposal goes before San Diego Unified’s school board this month.

But Dalal still sees ALBA as a stopgap measure — a temporary aid for troubled students, not a permanent alternative.

“It’s an interim placement for a minimum number of students,” she said. “We’re pretty bare-bones. Our mission is to prepare kids to be successful in a [traditional] environment.”

With only a few months with each student, counselor LeVeque said she struggles to identify the underlying problems that drive each student’s misbehavior, and to follow up with departed students. Once staffed with three counselors, ALBA Middle now has two site counselors, including LeVeque. If state budget cuts are as large as expected, the school will lose another counselor. As the semester ends, LeVeque said, all she can do is pass along her recommendations to another counselor, seeing the teen in another school. Students notice the turnover too.

“ALBA’s a school to shape up your life. You get to know someone for a period of time,” said De’Angelo Hawkins, a seventh grader. “And then they go.”

When the semester ends, Capreece said, she’ll probably go to a charter school, or maybe an alternative school run by the school district. Her father is eyeing a high school that partners with Mesa College. She doesn’t want to return to San Diego High, she said — it’s too crowded, too big. And after her fight, she doesn’t trust her classmates there.

“My first high school experience wasn’t so great,” she said. “Here, there’s no drama. In regular school, way more stuff happened. But people never got caught, like I did.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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