Some kids don't want to go back to school -- ever. Each year more than 1,000 students drop out of Prince George's secondary schools, and more than 400 from Montgomery junior and senior high schools, because they don't like it. Several times that number miss as many classes as they attend.
Students like 17-year-old Lori Keyser of Kensington often find the large comprehensive high schools strange and hostile places. They quickly realize they have become anonymous numbers and can skip classes without being noticed. Keyser spent much of her first year at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda visiting places like Great Falls, chatting with friends in the girls' room and loitering around nearby shopping centers like Georgetown Square.
"I didn't care at all," she recalls. "I would go to school for three classes in the morning, and then take off."
Specialists say the missing students fit into two categories: those who go to school but avoid classrooms, and "school-phobics" who hate going to school at all. Sometimes the problems are induced by drugs or alcohol, or by a home environment in which education is not highly valued. More frequently, school phobia is a more general fear of a large and faceless school system.
Whatever the cause, "the kids have been turned off by school," said Montgomery County pupil personnel worker John F. Kegley. And the longer the problem continues, the worse it gets. "The students get so far behind that they get too embarrassed to participate or try to catch up."
Kegley coordinates one of three programs in Montgomery designed to prevent such academic disasters. Each has between 20 and 30 students and operates as a school away from school, offering individual attention and counseling, plenty of field trips and a tightly knit, family atmosphere. Although the programs are designed to eventually re-integrate students into normal high schools, educators find that most like the alternative schools so much they do not want to leave.
"You feel like somebody here instead of just another student," said Keyser, who is now in the Tahoma Program in Bethesda. She said individual attention and support from fellow students make the classroom a better place to be. Students discuss their own problems, and are just as likely as the teachers to reprimand an absent student.
"You really can't skip, because there are only 25 kids and they know when you're gone," said Cynthia Wolfe, a friend of Keyser's who is also in the program. "If high schools were like this, there would be so many kids going to school."
Students are expected to remain in the programs at least a year, and can stay until they complete high school if necessary.
Wolfe's mother, Kathy Wolfe, used to drive her daughter to school, only to find later that she had skipped every class. Now, she said, "there's been a complete turnaround. Now I don't have any problems at all."
The Gateway program in Rockville, run on much the same lines, offers vocational training as well. Students are taught job-seeking skills and then sent out to find employment for the afternoons. This provides the kids money and teaches them responsibility, said coordinator John Kegley, and eases the problems of the many students who are "too restless" to tolerate six hours of classes a day.
Indeed, students with no plans for further education often find little point in standard academic subjects. The Croom Vocational School in the rural south of Prince George's County tries to engage the enthusiasm of reluctant students by teaching trades as well as academics. It offers its 120 students, of whom about 35 percent were dropouts from regular high schools and 15 percent were planning to drop out, a two-year program far removed from the impersonal world of the comprehensive high school.
Students are recommended for Croom by guidance counselors at other high schools -- or by friends who already attend. Most experience a "complete turnaround" after coming to Croom, said principal Edward Doyle. Students who missed between 75 and 100 school days each year while at normal high schools typically miss only about 15 at Croom, he said. With only 120 students, absentees are quickly missed, he said, adding that "We're out in the country: if you're going to cut classes, you're going to pick tobacco or talk to the cows."
Students spend half their time in normal academic subjects, "keyed very much to survival kinds of learning", said Doyle, and the rest of the day learning vocational skills ranging from auto repair to secretarial work. During their second year in the program, some students earn credits while working at outside jobs. About 95 percent of the students find full-time employment after finishing at Croom.
The students do their own cooking and maintain the grounds and buildings.
"If you find students who are cutting across the lawn, you'll find students telling them to get back on the sidewalk, because our students have planted the grass and the trees," said Doyle. "You won't find anything written on the bathroom walls: our students are the ones who do the painting and the maintenance."
Self-help is also an important element in Project Stay, a program begun in a few Prince George's schools last year. This fall, Stay will expand to almost every secondary school in the county. Students are recommended for the program by teachers and guidance counselors, largely for having a high number of suspensions and low grades despite apparent academic ability.
The students spend a week in workshops with teachers and guidance counselors, discussing their problems and how to cope with a school system with which they are often at odds. Then they return to their schools and receive follow-up counseling.
Last year's pilot program has shown school officials that most participants showed marked improvement in their grades, and that very few of them subsequently dropped out of school.
Meanwhile, what is popularly called a dropout SWAT team made the rounds of county schools last year, telling students what it's like to face the world without a high-school diploma. Since last spring, the team, composed of a high school dropout, a high school graduate and an employer, has visited 25 schools to try to persuade students with low attendance and high suspension rates and poor grades to stay in school. The team plans to resume its rounds after school opens.
Students "don't want to hear it from an educator like myself," said program director Lee Bowen. "They want to hear it from an employer and a kid their own age." It is difficult to measure the success of the program, Bowen said: "Some students seem to be absorbing it, and ask questions," while others remain unconvinced that a high school diploma matters. But Bowen added that with the country's current economic difficulties and the cutback in social services, students are likely to think twice before dropping out of school.