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Youths with no place to turn offered a Step Up

Megan Holland
Sean Stallard, foreground, and Quenton Lewis work on computers at the Step Up program for students who have run out of schooling options.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Instructor Wiley Bland, center, works on math with Jordan Molia while Sean Stallard works on a computer at the new Step Up program. The students spend mornings on individual course work. The afternoon is spent outside, doing community service, visiting an exhibition or going for a walk.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News

He spent years wandering in and out of class, doing time in juvenile jail, hanging with the wrong crowd and eventually getting kicked out of school for good. But he didn't get the message until the night someone shot his best friend dead at a party.

That's when everything changed for 16-year-old Sean Stallard.

In a moment of clarity, he enrolled in Step Up -- the last chance of last chance high schools.

Step Up is new, created for kids who have fallen through every hole in every safety net of the system, including the Anchorage School District, private schools, government agencies, court-ordered treatments and the latest trend in "curing" what ails troubled teens, whatever it may be.

It's Stallard's last chance at a high school diploma and a future beyond the streets.

This isn't an alternative high school like SAVE or Benny Benson, where public school kids on the brink of dropping out can hurry up and earn their diplomas.

Nor is it like the Continuation Program, where kids who have drug or alcohol problems go.

Step Up is for teens who have run out all their options and have nowhere else to go -- the students who were bad enough to be kicked out of school, either through long-term suspensions or expulsions -- but who stopped just short of doing something that landed them in jail.

Sean and half a dozen other students sat in front of computer screens recently at the school, located in two rooms behind a dingy storefront downtown on Fourth Avenue. The school looks like someplace you'd go for drivers ed or a continuing education class, except students have to pass through a metal detector before sitting down.

Wiley Bland, a veteran school district teacher, walks around checking work and helping students who need it. One of the biggest challenges, he said, will be finding the eligible kick-outs and convincing them to come to the school.

"(It's about) getting them to feel like they want to be here," he said. "It's about us being together as a group."

The teens work by themselves, following computer programs, clicking away to the next screen, filling out worksheets with pencils. Garrett Gaines, from McLaughlin Youth Center, the juvenile jail, watches over them. He is part counselor, part teacher, part mentor, part case manager and part security guard. His job is to teach the kids about things like anger management, substance abuse and relationships.

Gaines worked at McLaughlin for 10 years before joining the school.

"I was there on the front lines and saw some of the real need -- instead of kids being locked up," he said. "I saw the importance of them not having an established school."

The students spend mornings on individual course work. The afternoon is spent outside, doing community service, visiting an exhibition or going for a walk. Sometimes they go to the Anchorage Museum to work on their Alaska Studies credit, a required course.

Bland tries to help Caylen, a 15-year-old who got kicked out of Bartlett High School, with his English assignment. Caylen and his twin brother got into a fistfight with another group of boys. It all started with an innocent kiss on the cheek of a female friend, Caylen explained, then jealousy and drama took over, some student had sex with another student in the school bathroom, and one thing led to another.

At 16, Sean Stallard should be more than halfway done with high school. But because he's been kicked out so much, he has only five of the 21 credits he needs to graduate.

"I know I have my work cut out for me," he said. "I'm trying to get back on track."

Sean went off track at an early age. He hung out with an older crowd and by middle school was doing Oxycontin and cocaine. His spiral downward was predictable -- trouble with his parents, bad friends. He was 13 when he started carrying a gun.

"I was really, really jacked up," he said.

When his best friend, 16-year-old Colton Crow, was shot at a rowdy South Anchorage warehouse party in March, the glue of drugs and violence holding his life together failed and it all came tumbling down.

"I'm a totally different person since that day," he said. "I don't want anyone to feel what I felt when he died."

Two men have been charged with Crow's murder.

NO-MAN'S LAND

The irony of the city's public education system before Step Up was obvious to anyone who cared to look: A problem kid bad enough to get expelled or suspended long-term but not bad enough to land at McLaughlin, got a free pass to the streets. They were left in an educational no-man's land.

"This is a gap where we really had a need," said U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler, chair of a city, state and federal government group formed to stem youth violence and gang activity -- the Anti-Gang and Youth Violence Policy Team.

To get locked up, juveniles need to commit serious offenses -- assault, burglary, stealing cars, dealing drugs. Once institutionalized at McLaughlin, they must attend its high school, which has a good reputation for turning kids around.

But for boys like Sean, who has done his time at McLaughlin and is on probation, or the kid who got kicked out of regular school for violence, or the kid who brought a knife to school or shoved another kid against a locker, it has been more problematic, say Loeffler and Anchorage schools Superintendent Carol Comeau.

Expelled students can reform and prove themselves to school administrators but not easily. Requirements often involve lengthy community service and counselling. And if the student does make it back into the classroom, he is usually so far behind that dropping out looks very attractive.

UNKNOWN NUMBERS

Nobody knows how many expelled or long-term-suspended students there are in Anchorage, which means no one knows how many kids could benefit from Step Up.

In the 2008-2009 school year, 81 students were expelled by the Anchorage School District for various reasons, including assault, drugs and alcohol, or carrying weapons.

There were 91 students expelled in 2007-2008, and 127 students in 2006-2007. About a third of these don't qualify for other programs -- like the Continuation Program, said McLaughlin juvenile justice superintendent Dean Williams, who helped spearhead the creation of Step Up. Of the remaining, few can afford or would be allowed in private school. More importantly, the kids with violent pasts are a risk that many schools, public or private, don't want to take on. Step Up "is a security-minded operation" with juvenile jail trained staff who know how to deal with these kids, Williams said. There are also several hundred others who are long-term suspended. Of the 900 or 1,000 kids who come through the detention center at McLaughlin every year -- meaning they did something bad enough to get charged -- only about 10 percent get institutionalized in a program or put behind bars. Of the rest, most don't end up back at school, Williams said.

Any long-term absence from school is bad, Williams said. The chances of dropping out increase dramatically the longer a student is suspended.

These are the kids who have a very high risk of ending up in adult prison, Williams said, or costing society money somewhere along the line.

Mao Tosi, who started the Pride Club to keep kids off the streets and out of trouble, agreed there are a lot of teens in Anchorage who need the help. "We need to keep them busy and give them opportunities," he said.

Getting to them early, can make all the difference, he said.

This year the Step Up program will have a dozen teens but hopes to expand to 25 by next year. Williams calls that "a bite in the apple."

INFINITY

Sean Stallard didn't realize he was good at school until he started actually showing up and doing the work. Now he's thinking about college and an engineering degree. But his goal for the immediate future is to work on his diploma, and to work with the state to move out of his foster home and back with his family.

He's got two more years of probation and at least two more years of high school. He doesn't plan to screw up either.

"I'm going to stay focused on the work," he said, fingering the infinity pendant around his neck. He never takes the necklace off, he said. It reminds him of something important. It holds some of his murdered friend's ashes.

Find Megan Holland online at adn.com/contact/mholland or call 257-4343.


By MEGAN HOLLAND
mholland@adn.com