The New York cabbie looked at me in amazement. "Whaddaya?A social woika or somethin'?" he shouted when I asked him to take me to the South Bronx. Gee, thanks, pal. As if I wasn't already twitchy at the prospect of spending a day in the most down-at-heel district in the United States.The South Bronx is notorious for its poverty and its random, round-the-clock violent crime. So it was not without trepidation that I set off to spend a day in an alternative high school for kids whom mainstream education has given up on - and vice versa.
All my preconceptions melted away on entering the school, Hostos Lincoln Academy (HLA). Here within the smart Hostos Community College, part of the City University of New York, I found no bandanna'd, punctured, tattooed thugs who only a mudda could love; just articulate, focused and hard-working students, 98 per cent of whom are from ethnic minorities, most of them Hispanic.
And they are high-achievers. HLA is in the New York Times' list of Top 10 schools, within the category that adjusts scores to compensate for students' background and family income. In state tests, its students outstrip their mainstream New York City counterparts in six subjects and in daily attendance and staying-on rates. And these are children considered beyond the pale by previous schools.
In only one sense is the student population not representative of the area. It is overwhelmingly - 85 per cent - female. There are many reasons for this, the most tragic being that, in the words of principal and school founder Dr Michele Cataldi, "boys in this community are falling off the edge". They get kicked out of school or drop out and are never seen again, except on the streets and in prisons.
Hostos is a "last-chance High", one of 60 such schools set up under the Alternative High School Superintendency to help at-risk students: those who have been expelled from their mainstream schools or have dropped out or failed or decided for other reasons that regular school is not for them.
Many alternative high schools are known for their poor performance, high drop-out rates and low expectations. Their pedagogic approach is characterised by some as informal, unstructured and untraditional - and by others as plain flaky.
Since HLA opened in 1987 it has been determinedly anti-flaky. It offers a programme so traditional that, assistant principal Nick Mazzarella says with a laugh, it has been called "a throwback to the Fifties" by the Alternative High School superintendent. The syllabus is demanding, and pupils sit the same exams as those taken by children in comprehensive and selective schools, rather than the easier competency tests used in other alternative high schools.
There are other hallmarks of academic rigour: an advanced placement history class for fast-trackers; and an opportunity for those who excel in other subjects to take courses at Hostos Community College. Forty students are currently doing just that.
There are extra curricular activities that other alternative high schools don't offer, including an award-winning debating team, drama, dance and sports. They even have an annual high school prom.
Not bad for a school where three-quarters of the students live below the poverty line, mostly in families headed by a single mother. Some live with relatives because their parents have died of Aids or are too strung out on drugs to look after them. Many are newly arrived in this country with little or no English. Some are refugees, others illegal immigrants. They are children who have floundered academically because of the impoverished environment at home or language difficulties or low expectations and lack of resources at their previous schools - or sometimes because of the gang culture and street violence that encircle their world.
Vicky Sanacore, one of the founding staff members and designer of the HLA programme of studies, says: "Our kids want to be identified with everyone else, to be given the same opportunities as kids in mainstream. I can't tell you how traumatic it is when they see an article calling Hostos 'drop-out prevention'. They come in the next day in tears, asking 'Why are they calling us drop-outs?' " What they need are high standards and high expectations, not a patronising "Mickey Mouse curriculum", says Dr Cataldi. Minutes after I met him in his office overlooking Yankee Stadium, he was in tears. "You should see these kids," he said, fumbling for a tissue. "They remind me of myself when I first came here."
That was over 40 years ago, when he arrived from Italy at 15, unable to speak English. He managed to gain a GED (general equivalency diploma), which is what non-academic students end up with instead of a high school diploma. Today he holds a PhD.
HLA is small, safe and supportive. It has 325 students, all of whom enter at ninth grade (aged 14 or 15), direct from junior high school. Other alternative high schools take students at tenth grade or above when they've already been expelled from or failed in their mainstream high school. Early intervention, Dr Cataldi believes, makes more sense than allowing the children to experience failure and humiliation and having their self-esteem knocked for six. Students are divided into "family" groups of around 20. These groups stay together for the full four years with the same teacher, meeting daily for a specially designed programme that combines a set syllabus with a forum to air ideas and problems and learn life skills. So, alongside values education and conflict resolution, students receive seminars on college preparation and goal-setting.
Teaching at HLA is certainly no nine-to-five job. Vicky Sanacore explains:
"All teachers make themselves available to students outside of school hours for tutorials. The building is open at seven every morning, and most staff are here until between five and seven at night. The kids often say to me after school hours 'Miss, you still here?', and I'll say 'Yeah, I don't have a life' and they'll say 'I don't have a life either.' "But for them it's not a joke. What we offer is decent food, warmth, safety and support, things many don't get at home. So, as well as helping them keep up with their school work, having them in the school for so many hours is another way of keeping them safe and off the streets and giving them a sense of family."
What teaching unions here would say about a 12-hour day doesn't bear thinking about. But HLA teachers work in the South Bronx out of choice, driven by a sense of responsibility to the children. They could all be leading a cushy life in the suburbs of nearby Westchester County, and indeed some newly qualified teachers do a stint of "boot camp" at HLA before moving on to more salubrious schools who value their inner city training.
Parents are also heavily involved in the school. HLA runs well attended Saturday workshops for parents and children in English language tutoring, computing and crafts, and parents run parenting workshops for other parents. There are also academic courses for parents, as well as counselling sessions and workshops on domestic violence and child abuse.
HLA continues its sports activities and academic tutoring throughout the school holidays. And a particularly enlightened bit of thinking has enabled students to train as medical assistants at two nearby hospitals during the school day, giving them the skills to earn more money part-time when they have to pay their way through college than they could serving burgers at McDonald's.
Hostos Lincoln's success comes down to that most elusive of combinations: high standards, a belief in students' abilities, and a commitment to helping them achieve their potential. Dr Cataldi sums it up when he says:
"We tell kids, 'You have the ability to be whatever you want to be, but you have to work hard at it. We'll help you do that.' " HLA is one of the schools featured in Reva Klein's 'Defying Disaffection' to be published by Trentham Books on November 8 at pound;29.95
* Stanley's story
Stanley was one of those students who, according to Dr Cataldi, "most teachers would wash their hands of". His credentials weren't inspiring. He came to Hostos after being suspended from another school. He'd also been stabbed in the street by another teenager in his neighbourhood.
That became a turning point for him: the experience of having his life saved by a trauma surgeon changed his outlook and he decided that he, too, would save lives one day.
He took advanced science courses at HLA and is now studying medicine at the University of Georgia.
* Margarita's story
"I came from Venezuela six years ago and my first three years were a waste of time because I was only learning English and nothing about this country and the way things work. At junior high I was considered a bad student. My behaviour was bad and I spoke really loud all the time to get attention.
"My teachers there thought coming to Hostos would be a good choice, and they were right. I'm doing really good and getting high scores. Because it's a small school, the teachers are always on top of you. If you do something bad they call your mother. It wouldn't be like this in a bigger school."