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Safe and ready to work

KEVIN Gilmore takes the wheel of the school bus which ensures pupils turn up to William Dowdell academy, in Atlanta USA.

The 34-year-old teacher is one of half a dozen who drive children to the alternative school - Georgia's equivalent of a pupil-referral unit.

The school has won county attendance awards for its record in building stability for children who have previously felt unsafe in and out of school.

Principal Sylvia Hooker said: "If you want the best out of young people, you have to have the best kind of staff. My staff go beyond the normal lengths, driving and monitoring the bus, making sure students are there, safe and ready to work."

School standards minister Stephen Timms visited the academy - one of 123 alternative schools in the southern state - during a fact-finding mission to the United States last week.

William Dowdell is a flagship alternative school housed in a modern, clean and bright building. A significant minority of the pupils are articulate and motivated. About three-quarters are African-American and 80 per cent are boys. In some cases parents and pupils requested referral to the school.

One student, Kenar Woods, chose to return for a second stint because the academy keeps him out of trouble. The 17-year-old said: "Students are too scared to fight here because they go to jail.

"We are monitored all the time. In other schools you just don't see anyone around when trouble starts. Kids can be fighting for 15 minutes before anyone knows."

Jessica Smith, aged 16, who became pregnant at 13, attends the academy because the hours - 8am until 2pm - fit in with childcare arrangements. She hopes to go to college and puts her improved grades down to small classes - between five and 10 pupils - and staff who are sticklers for homework.

Mr Gilmore was courted by a number of schools but chose William Dowdell. He said: "People said I was crazy. But I knew I wanted to teach tough kids and this school gives you time to teach on an individual basis. There are a handful of kids that are really tough. And there are some kids I just can't communicate with. Keeping them on a seat is all you can hope for."

Mr Timms said schools in the UK and the US faced similar challenges. "Alternative schools, at least in Georgia, are a very well-understood part of the system. I think the name of our provision is something we should reflect on. The name (pupil-referral unit) can send out the wrong signal."

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