As Pat likes to describe it, he was too cool for school.Instead of class, he preferred shoplifting which, he says wryly, was a lot easier than homework.
But police caught on to Pat, 15, and his juvenile record in Prince William County was soon spotted with arrests.
His academic prospects weren't much better. Despite a high IQ, school counselors said he couldn't keep up in class.
Two years ago, after being expelled from both parochial and public schools, Prince William County school psychologists told his parents that Pat was emotionally disturbed and urged that he be sent to a psychiatric clinic in neighboring Fairfax County.
When he first got to the clinic, Pat says, he was told he would be there two weeks. But when the two weeks stretched into six months, Pat began looking for a way out. He found it in his past.
"Someone told me that thieves were kicked out. So I stole some drugs from the drug cabinet and they sent me home," he said. "It was the only way I could get out of that place."
About 19 months ago, Pat began attending Different Strokes School, an alternative educational program for youngsters in Prince William County with academic, emotional or legal problems. He says he still is not fond of school, although he realizes now he needs an education. Teachers concede Pat still has problems -- he has not stopped shoplifting -- but add that his academic performance is beginning to match his above-average ability.
Pat is one of 21 youngsters at Different Strokes, which opened five years ago in a small, split-level house on Sudley Road in Manassas. This week, the program opened another facility in a Dale City church, allowing the program to handle 23 students.
In Manassas, the doors open every morning at 8:30. A stereo beats out hard rock until a group meeting begins at 9:15. For 15 minutes, two teachers, an aide, students and Director Paul Borzellino gather on what was once the living room floor to discuss goals for the day. At 9:30, the class divides into groups of three or four students to begin individual assignments in a curriculum that includes basics like English, math and history.
Time is set aside for lunch and recreation -- usually volleyball -- before students head back to class or attend counseling sessions at the school. b
At 1:50 p.m., teachers and students regroup on the living room floor to review the day, before school ends at 2:30 p.m.
The rules at Different Strokes point to some of the problems teachers deal with every day. On one wall is a sign, posted by teachers and counselors: "REMINDER: You all have a free warning not to hit each other."
Or, as another rule states, "You may be angry in this school but you cannot have physical fights. Anger should he handled through talking. This rule also prohibits bringing any kind of weapon to school."
Other rules prohibit drugs, drug paraphernalia or sexual activity at school.
The rules, said Borzellino, are not always obeyed, but they are enforced through a point system. For instance, any student caught fighting is docked 25 points. Students who accumulate 500 penalty points are dismissed from the program.
Students are referred to Different Strokes by the Prince William County schools, county mental health center, police and probation officers, psychiatric hospitals, family or friends. But no student is forced to enter the program, according to Borzellino.
"Each student has to visit the school with his parents or guardian," Borzellino said. All must agree to sign a contract that spells out what the student should accomplish.
The contract applies equally to parents and students. Meetings are held twice a month with parents, and if they continually fail to show up, their child is dismissed from Different Strokes.
To John, a teen-age rock fan with shoulder-length, brown hair, Different Strokes is the "hellraisers' school."
"We're the rejects," he says, "the ones nobody else wants."
The program, free to students and their families, is financed by the county school system and county mental health center on a 60-40 basis, respectively. But it is not cheap. The average cost per pupil -- $5,600 -- is more than twice what it costs to educate Prince William County students in regular classes. This year, Different Strokes has a budget of $211,000.
But Borzellino says money should not be an issue: "To me, the clear issue is we pay more now to get these kids on their feet, keep them out of jail, off the streets. If we don't pay now, we pay later when they're in jail, or robbing our houses and we have to pay for much more expensive places such as psychiatric hospitals."
Students at Different Strokes are 13 to 18 years old. Academic skills vary from third to 10th grade, and all students work at their own pace. For the most part, teachers say, the students have above-average IQs.
The youngsters' problems sometimes seem overwhelming. Some are just coming out of severe drug problems; others are under medication for emotional disturbances; all require constant supervision.
But teachers see the problems as challenges, not roadblocks.
"This place is much more than a school. It is a family," said Thomas Prosche, a teacher at the Dale City facility. "The emotional involvement is very heavy between all of us."
That affefction, and respect, is often returned in equal measure by the students. "The teachers are more friends here than foes," said one 16-year-old boy, who was expelled from the regular school system. "They don't mess with your own life here."
In terms of results, school records claim the program has an 87 percent success rate, based on the number of pupils who find jobs or move on to less structured academic or vocational programs. In fact, says Borzellino, Different Strokes' students progress twice as rapidly as students in regular classes, a statistic Borzellino attributes to the students' above-average IQs.
Even so, there are failures. Borzellino said some students can't stay out of trouble with juvenile authorities, or drugs. Sometimes, parents lost interest. And some students, he said, simply need more care in hospitals.
One school board member, Michael O'Donnel, says that "all in all they do show an improvement on the part of the kids."
O'Donnel says the school board has had few complaints about the school. In fact, he says, the program is nearly anonymous. "I doubt if the majority of the community knows why it exists and what it is all about."
Recently, the school board indicated its confidence in Different Strokes by voting unanimously to double the size of the program.
But Director Borzellino worries that Ronald Reagan's proposed budget cutbacks could force a smiliar cutback at Different Strokes.
"The massive cuts at the federal level will certainly cut back how much the states have at the local level," he says. "Quite honestly, I'm real fearful."
In the meantime, Different Strokes continues to grow and to give students like Pat a second chance.
Ironically, it was Pat who told his counselor he wants to be a policeman. Said Pat, "I don't want to see people in trouble like me and have to come here."