Last chance high
Fern Ridge sits off a highway in the vast Parkway School District in St Louis County, Missouri, surrounded by bland midwestern landscape - miles and miles of flat roads and bluey-green trees - under an already scorching sun. Students prostrate themselves on a patch of grass in front of the school during their lunch hour, dressed in baggy shorts, T-shirts and trainers. The boys sport baseball hats, worn back-to-front or otherwise. They'll stay in that uniform until the middle of September because of the baking heat of the Midwest. That's St Louis for you.
Fern Ridge's differentness goes way beyond the cool method it uses for ending lessons or the even cooler dress code. No teacher has more than 10 students in a class. They aren't just any students, either. These young people, aged 15 to 21, have all gone to ordinary American high schools and have either dropped out or truanted consistently enough to make it clear that mainstream school is not for them.
But, in spite of that, these young people are at Fern Ridge because they want to graduate from high school, they want to go on to college and succeed. They are not accepted into the school (the waiting list is as long as a highway) unless they can articulate their commitment to taking the school and their last hope of education seriously.
There is nothing wrong with their ability, although some of the children have learning difficulties. More than half are of above-average intelligence. Many show particular talent in the fine arts.
But if their intellects are strong and healthy, their psyches are not. Nearly half the children are on daily medication: Ritalin, Prozac or other anti-depressants. The children have a variety of labels attached to them: Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention DeficitHyperactivity Disorder, depression. Whatever their diagnosis, they share the experience of not having fitted into mainstream high school. With that experience has come low self-esteem, lack of confidence, a sense of failure.
"I don't give a hoot about the labels they've been given," says the principal Carole Clary. "If a kid has failed at their previous school but has the intellectual ability and academic skills to work in a school environment, we can work with them."
Small class sizes are a priority in order to give the students individual care. "It's important that they develop personal relationships with the teachers," says Clary, "because these are kids who have cut themselves off. They're suspicious of adults generally and teachers especially. They question authority, they're cynical and they're out to take risks from an early age, whether it's drugs or bungee jumping or piercing their belly button or not going to school. Next thing you know, they're totally out of the mainstream. "
If the students are a little different, so, too, are the teachers. Their focus is on getting these disengaged young people engaged by accepting them non-judgmentally and winning their trust and respect.
The demands on teachers are enormous. It's not unusual for them to be at the school until nine or ten o'clock at night and on Sundays to support students who have work to catch up with. Explains Clary, "These kids procrastinate but we'll never draw a line beyond which we won't work if that would prevent a child from success. If that means working half the night or half the weekend, that's what we'll do."
The commitment pays off. Last year, 95 per cent of the students graduated, with 75 per cent going on to college or university. (The average proportion of students going on to college in the district as a whole is 95 per cent. ) Fern Ridge students didn't achieve their goals through mollycoddling, but through a rough love founded on compassion informed by realism.
"We're unique in our approach," says Clary. "Some programmes are about getting kids emotionally stable and grounded enough to go back into mainstream. But this school is not a fixing post. It is the place for them. We don't talk to them about fulfilment or widening their horizons. We give them a concrete goal, which is to graduate from high school. We talk about the practical issue of credits [22 credits are required in order to graduate from high school in Missouri, one credit awarded per subject per year] and what they have to do to get what they want."
Academic standards are high. If students don't achieve grade C or above, they receive no credit. They can re-write work or re-sit exams as many times as they want, but poor quality work is simply not acknowledged.
Buttressing this firm approach is a strict code of behaviour. Every day, every student is issued a "responsibility card" that they must carry at all times. It reminds them of basic rules that must be kept, such as being on time for classes, staying on task, behaving respectfully to staff and fellow students and so on. If they transgress, a teacher punches a hole in the card, which means that they are denied privileges, such as going off-campus for lunch.
Despite the tight rules, self-discipline is a continuing problem for many students and missing school is, for some, an integral part of their lives. It is not unknown for Carole Clary and her staff to present reluctant attenders with personalised wake-up calls. "I go to their homes and stand over them and say 'get your butt out of bed', and I won't budge until they've got themselves up and then we'll go together to school."
This level of commitment and input comes at a cost, both on a personal level to the teachers and in terms of resources. The principal likens teachers' stress levels to "working in a MASH unit. The kids are very frustrating to work with because they try every trick in the book to avoid being successful. So teachers have to be zealots, absolutely passionate about their job - otherwise, they'll burn out."
It's a big undertaking for the school district, too. While other district schools allocate $6,200 (Pounds 4,200) per year per child, at Fern Ridge the cost is $9,300 (Pounds 6,300) for each of its 110 students. Unsurprisingly, given the costs, this is the only alternative high school in Parkway and one of only a handful run by other authorities.
Although Fern Ridge has only been going for five years, there are plenty of success stories. Carole Clary and her team have faith in all the children who come to the school saying that they want to learn. And even if they have to drag them out of bed to get them into the classroom, they don't seem to allow that faith to waver.
Jamie Langley is 16 and went to a small Christian Science school before being kicked out for truancy. From there, he was put into Parkway West, a big high school in the district.
I got confused by all the freedom I had there and skipped school all the time, like before. My mom went ballistic. I failed my first year. When I got suspended for 23 days for skipping, I applied for here. I knew I was heading for drop out.
Things changed after I came here. Mrs Plunkett [the former principal of Fern Ridge] motivated me totally. She believed in us. If it weren't for her, I'd be a bum in an alley somewhere. I have total friendship with my teachers. They're here to help me, not torment me. Fern Ridge is a place for different kinds of learning. We all learn differently and the teachers here understand this.
They care about us as people, too. Last year, I had to do community service after getting in trouble with the law. My PE teacher would pick me up every Saturday to take me to where I had to go, he'd feed me lunch and then take me back home at the end of the day.
Samantha Spicer is an attractive, articulate 16-year-old who came to Fern Ridge after Easter.
I was going to Parkway South High School where there are 2,000 kids with a student-teacher ratio of 30 to 1. I couldn't function there. I was failing all my classes, I wasn't learning anything. It seemed no one really cared about our education.
I felt I was a failure and used to fight with my parents all the time. I was very depressed and had no motivation and I used to run away. I'm feeling much happier in myself since I've been here. Teachers at Fern Ridge care about your grades and how you're learning. They adapt to students' different learning styles.
I'm getting As and Bs here and at my old school it was Ds and Fs. I go to a psychiatrist and I've been on Zoloft, which is like Prozac, to help me control my feelings, for some time. Now I'm at the point where I don't need it any more. My social life is better, I'm making more friends and I'm feeling more comfortable with myself.