They weren't the best of students. Prince George's County tenth grader Barry Mease describes his behavior as "insubordination, talking back to the teacher. Stuff like that."
Kevin Forbes says he aggravated one teacher so much the teacher invited him into a back room for a fight, where "I threw him over the table." Jonathan Davis says he once grabbed a vice-principal who had annoyed him, and was suspended as a result. Together, Davis and Forbes skipped school 18 days in a row.
Michael Dilley used to yell at his teachers and storm out of the classroom. Tony Belum was suspended eight times in one year. That didn't sit well on top of Belum's straight E average (E is the failing grade).
All this has changed for these 10th graders from Walker Mill Junior High in Prince George's. Last March, they were invited to take part in Project Stay (Skills to Assist Youth) and joined the first session of the program with 42 other junior high students from Walker Mill, James Madison and John Hanson schools.
They spent a week in workshops with teachers and guidance counselors from the schools and the system headquarters. They discussed their problems and how to cope with a school system with which they were always at odds. Then they returned to their schools, and received follow-up counseling.
According to pupil services specialist Patricia Martin, who helped design the program, only five students from Project Stay have since dropped out of school. "We're trying to make sure they get to GED programs," she said. "The traditional routes are not always the best routes for these kids."
The five students interviewed this week say the program works.
"I used to come in late for school," Belum says. If he were challenged by a teacher, "I'd tell him to beat it." Now, he says, he realizes that "if you come in the door, tell the teacher you're sorry, maybe he'll give you a break."
The program taught Belum that, in a confrontation, "it wasn't the teacher that was going to lose."
At the same time, he says, he's gone from being a straight E student, to mostly C's and B's.
Davis and Forbes both credit Project Stay with keeping them in school.
If it weren't for the program, says Forbes, "I'd have dropped out. I don't feel that way now. If I fail this year I'd stay on. But I know I'm not going to fail."
"The success is there," says Parthenia S. Pruden, an assistant superintendent who helped develop the program. "Many of the youngsters who had been C, D, E-level had better grade averages" after they went through Project Stay. Most of the youngsters also stayed in school because they stopped the behavior that had caused them to be suspended.
The first session had such positive results that that another program was run in November, Pruden says. Prince George's school officials hope to have a third program this spring.
Pruden, Martin, and student concerns officer Donald Murphy, all assigned to school system headquarters, dreamed up the scheme while Pruden was still a pupil services officer, an administrative counselor who also works on special programs. When she became an assistant superintendent, Pruden was able to implement the plan.
"We used to talk about things that could be done," Pruden says. "These were kids who fall between the cracks: It's the kid at the high end, (or) at the low end, who gets all the attention."
The program is unusual, she says, because it doesn't separate the student from the school environment -- the students still do their schoolwork during the week, and the follow-up counseling is just as important as the workshops themselves.
Students are recommended for Project Stay by teachers and administrators at their schools. Pruden said participants are chosen if they have a high number of suspensions and low grades despite apparent academic ability.
The students agree to take part in the voluntary program because "it's different, a change of scenery." At the beginning, "they are doubtful. But then they develop a trust."
She says the results still are hard to determine. "The fear is that the growth, that the improvement (the students achieved) last year will come down this year.So far they are surviving and achieving at a higher level.
During the program, the students recreated past confrontations with teachers, acted them out and made video film of the performances. They discussed what they could have done to avoid the conflicts. They made their own rules for the week, including prohibitions against fighting and swearing. "We stuck to the rules," Mease says.
The students took aptitude tests and participated in career counseling.
And at times, they say, Project Stay was "scary." Forbes cited the students' visit to the county jail in Upper Marlboro.
"When we first went in there were some guys in there, threatening us," Mease says. "When we turned around they were walking behind us, with no guard. It (the purpose of the jail visit) was . . . to teach you more than what can happen at school -- what happens on the street."
"It was trying to tell us about life," Forbes says. "Period."
When they returned to school after their workshops, the students said, they were given a hard time by teachers anxious to see if the program worked. "The teachers knew you weren't talking," Mease says. "They'd tell you to stop talking when you weren't."
They survived the testing without outbursts, confrontations or suspensions, says Mease.
Vicki Goldenberg, a guidance counselor at Central Senior High School where the five now are sophomores, says the students "make an effort" to do well in school. She describes Central High as strict, and says the Project Stay alumni have handled it well.
"Part . . . can be attributed to the process of maturation, to parents," Pruden says. "But some of the success must be due to what they have done in Project Stay."