Two years ago, Javier Chavez's life revolved around gangs and drugs. "I was really bad," he says with not even a hint of a swagger. The 15-year-old was stoned every day, would bunk off from school a lot and, when he did attend, his bad behaviour meant he was often sent to the principal's office. Although essentially a bright boy, his grades inevitably suffered.
Things were worse outside school. His house was "sometimes" shot at by neighbours and the preferred method of communication among his friends was to grab for a gun. His situation dragged him down. "I had suicidal feelings sometimes because of not getting enough attention at home. I'd do things like cut my arm."
Today, Javier is a top student at South San Antonio High School in Texas. He is articulate and reflective. "I see my future now in a way that I didn't before. I don't want to do anything that I'll regret later," he says with a straightforward clarity that belies his age.
What turned this boy's life around was involvement in a programme that showed him - and thousands of low-achieving, disruptive high school students throughout America - another side of themselves. The key is simple: they are given responsibility and respect.
The Coca Cola Valued Youth Programme targets teenagers from 12 to 16 who are failing or are at risk of dropping out. Rather than sending them to units for no-hopers, their teachers pick them out to tutor primary children during their school day. It is treated as a job - and an important one, so much so that many classmates clamour for the chance to tutor, too.
The underlying principle is that students previously alienated from school find an incentive to attend when they are entrusted with the important role of helping younger children. The fact that they are paid the US minimum hourly wage of $4.25 (Pounds 2.65) for the job doesn't hurt either.
But while the money initially lures them into the programme, the drive to do their job well quickly overtakes everything else. The younger children look up to them, look forward to seeing them and hold them in their affections. "It makes me want to come to school, so that I can see my tutees," says 13-year-old Sabrina Elias, a student at Dwight Middle School who tutors three children at Athens Elementary school. Dareen Garza, 14, from nearby Kazen Middle School adds, "What we're doing is teaching and learning at the same time."
Four times a week during their social studies lessons, the tutors walk with a teacher from their respective schools to nearby elementary schools to work with the younger pupils. According to a three-year longitudinal study carried out by the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA), which founded the programme in 1984, the drop-out rate among Valued Youth tutors is 2 per cent, as opposed to the national average of 14 per cent among all students and 27 per cent among Hispanics under the age of 18. All of the programme's participants graduated from high school when followed in a four-year tracking study of one school district in Texas, and 58 per cent went on to college or technical school, compared with less than 6 per cent of the Hispanic student population as a whole during the same period. Overall, the programme had a positive effect on grades (37 per cent improved their maths and reading), on participants' sense of self esteem and on their attitudes towards school (a 20 per cent drop in disciplinary referrals).
While clearly not a miracle cure, the figures are impressive. American educationists' struggles with the poor academic progress of Hispanic students mirrors the British experience with African Caribbean children. But the situation among Hispanics is exacerbated by social exclusion, grinding poverty and often parents' own illiteracy and unfamiliarity with schools. By the age of 14 to 15, half of all Spanish-speaking children drop out.
The programme was originally established to address the high drop-out rate of Spanish-speaking students. A small-scale project piloting cross-age tutoring was introduced by IDRA's founder, Dr Jose Cardenas, as long ago as 1968 in San Antonio, which was the poorest school district in the country with one of the highest Hispanic populations (92 per cent). Nearly 15 years later, the partnership between the Coca Cola Foundation and the community organisation in San Antonio was born. Today, Coca Cola funds the programme with grants of $2 million; IDRA doubles each dollar with money contributed from state, federal and charitable organisations.
The programme's brief has widened, as IDRA's head of research Josie Supik puts it, "to include any child who has been held back a year, is average for their year group, who has a low reading age, who is withdrawn or is at risk of failing or dropping out". A central tenet is that all tutors attend 30 weekly training sessions focusing on literacy and tutoring skills and that they are thoroughly supported by mentors,whom they meet once a week.
Hispanic children are still the largest represented minority group, but African-Americans, Asians and white children are now benefiting from the programme. More than 90 schools in 17 cities are involved, representing more than 3,000 tutors and tutees. The IDRA has calculated that since its inception in 1984, the programme has kept nearly 5,000 students from dropping out. And Valued Youth has recently gone international, with schools in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Birmingham, England, running programmes (see box). Japan, Mexico and Canada appear to be the next in line.
When you talk to the teachers and the children involved, you understand why more and more schools look to the programme as a sensible answer to a complex problem. Louise Gaitanos, its teacher co-ordinator at Kazen Middle School for the 11 years it has run there, is an articulate proponent.
"This has been a challenge for me as a teacher - taking students who were getting into trouble, had no goals and felt they were being pushed around and suddenly, putting them into positions of responsibility. These are kids who could have been in gangs. They're kids whose teachers have come to me and said 'you've got so and so going to help the little ones? Are you CRAZY?' These are kids who've had 100 referrals to the principal's office in a single year for skipping class, sneaking into the gym to play basketball, hiding in the bathrooms or just leaving school. And you give them a job tutoring little kids in the school next door and suddenly - no referrals."
Dr Maria "Cuca" Robledo Montecel, executive director of the IDRA, does not promote the programme as the panacea for all the ills of troubled youth in a troubled system. But she is passionate about the need to search for ways to make schools places "where children are seen as valuable and important. I doubt in my lifetime I will live to see schools not only valuing children but schools where educational success isn't dependent on a child living on the right side of town, being white, being rich.
"But," she concedes, smiling, "the idealist in me sees teachers and schools pulling out all the stops to ensure that all children get the same advantages. And that gives me hope."
THE PROGRAMME IN BRITAIN
The first Valued Youth Programme in Britain - Second City Second Chance - is now coming up to its second year. About 100 students from secondary schools and behaviour support centres in Birmingham are now tutoring primary children in a programme translated to fit local conditions. Under the direction of seconded headteacher Gethin Davies, SCSC has cross-race, cross-cultural mentors for each teenaged tutor. "We have customised some of the mechanical aspects of the American programme, but the philosophy is the same," says Davies, who has just received $20,000 (Pounds 12,200) from the Coca Cola Foundation - mainly for student rewards for their achievements. One of Valued Youth's great strengths is that it can be moulded to fit the cultural and social profiles of any community - Gethin Davies hopes SCSC will spur other cities to adopt the programme's model. For more information, ring Second City Second Chance on 0121 472 3019.