At this school, students with discipline records get a second chance

Maniah Martinez, 14, doesn’t like sitting still. She stands up from her desk while doing school work, fidgets during lunch, and leans back in her chair and plays with her sweater during group time.

When she made an A on a grammar quiz, Maniah bounced up and down in her chair.

“I got an A,” she exclaimed loud enough for the room to hear.

Maniah is excited about her grades and teachers at McAdams Academy. But she doesn’t plan to be in the program long.

In middle school, she never asked for help, was the class clown and spent too much time worrying about boys, Maniah said. Eventually, her actions got her expelled.

“It (McAdams) helped me see that what I did was not right and to do the right thing,” Maniah said. “I don’t want to get expelled or suspended no more. Basically, that was my whole 8th grade and half of 9th grade. It’s the choice I made.”

McAdams Academy is a crime prevention program in Wichita for middle or high school students who have been expelled or received a long-term suspension. Youth for Christ launched McAdams about three years ago, filling a void left by the closure of a Boys & Girls Club program.

At McAdams, students gain credits through Andover eCademy, participate in family-style meals with staff and, most importantly, work on their behaviors.

“They want to be loved, they want to know somebody cares and they want someone to invest in them,” said Bev Jackson, one of the school’s two teachers.

The need

It was a Wednesday, and it wasn’t a good day at McAdams Academy.

Students refused to respond to teachers and took their exasperation out on Chuck Knowles, founder of the school.

“You’re a weirdo,” one student said to Knowles when sent to the hallway.

Another student mumbled profanities while reading over a document each student had signed promising good behavior.

“That language isn’t in there,” a volunteer told him.

Leaders in the school – which includes Knowles, the two teachers and volunteers – say the need is great.

The Wichita school district had 20 expulsions in 2015-16, 22 in 2014-15, none in 2013-14 and 42 in 2012-13.

Out-of-school suspensions are higher, ranging from 2,639 in 2015-16 to 2,851 in 2014-15.

About 400 of the students involved in those expulsions or suspensions might be eligible for McAdams, Knowles estimates. But the school has the capacity to take only about 15 students at a time. Some students don’t spend an entire year in expulsion or suspension, so McAdams served about 40 students last year.

Although some students expelled from Wichita schools are allowed to attend the system’s Gateway program or finish their classes online, a hearing officer might decide they’re too great a risk for the safety of others, according to the school system. This leaves some students waiting out their expulsion or suspension with few options.

Most are disciplined for violence, often without causing any injury, according to a state database. Some are disciplined for bringing weapons to school.

Some of the students at McAdams have learning disabilities, Knowles said. Many are from single parent households or are raised by relatives. Most are low income and most are boys. They are often from families who move frequently, creating gaps in knowledge from switching schools. The racial demographic varies.

Of the students served by McAdams, 63 percent are considered at moderate risk of further offending and 29 percent are considered high risk.

McAdams addresses the risk factors of anti-social personalities and poor engagement with school, two possible predictors of criminal behavior, said Delores Craig-Moreland, a Wichita State University professor who assists the Sedgwick County Juvenile Corrections Advisory Board.

“Youth who evidence both of these risk factors at a moderate to high level are expected to be involved in additional criminal conduct a high percentage of the time if no intervention is undertaken,” Craig-Moreland said in an email.

The faith

Youth for Christ is a Christian organization, but students at McAdams don’t have to be of any particular religion.

Christian faith permeates much of the school, whether it’s the prayer said before lunch or the daily chapel (which is not required).

For Knowles, his Christian faith informs how he interacts with the students – including when they misbehave.

“It is understanding grace, mercy that helps me deal with kids,” Knowles said. “In a nutshell, I realize from God’s perspective before I became his child and was transformed, God saw me as a rebellious, awful teenager.”

“Who deserved expulsion,” joked one of the two teachers.

That means Knowles and the teachers give students “grace,” hearing them out, giving them second chances while demanding better behavior.

The results

On a morning in August, Jackson pulled the students away from watching videos and typing up assignments.

All the students have English classes, but Jackson told them that she had “noticed some of the questions are kind of tough.”

Soon the students were playing a “Wheel of Fortune” style game, trying to find a prepositional phrase.

Later in the day, Diane Butler, the other teacher, read aloud from a book about a boy in Malawi who builds a windmill. They took breaks from listening for Jackson to explain how windmills work using a windmill diagram on the wall.

The focus isn’t just on academics.

“These kids aren’t kicked out for bad grades,” Butler said. “They’re kicked out for behavior. If we took them in and all we did was work on their grades, keep up on their assignments and their credits, we’d accomplish that but we aren’t getting the child from where they were to another place.”

“Some days you measure your success in someone didn’t lose it and throw a chair, or we didn’t hear the F-bomb 20 times today,” Jackson added. “Those are successes in our book.”

There are also other results: Students leaving McAdams were ranked as 57 percent successful in meeting their goals during the program’s first year.

An early review of the program’s second year shows an improvement in the percent of students who do not end up at the Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center, a program that assesses and makes referrals for youth brought in by law enforcement or the district attorney’s staff, said Craig-Moreland.

The future

Tamori Morgan is 15.

Unlike Maniah, he doesn’t want to go back to regular school.

Instead, the ninth grader, who loves writing music and rapping, wants to stay at McAdams after he’s allowed to return to Wichita public schools in January.

“I learn something new each day with these people here,” Tamori said.

Tamori said the program has helped him become more mature, handle his anger and improve his school work. He used to be an honors student and thinks he might become one once again.

When he returns to school, he’ll do so “with more confidence,” Tamori said.

Tamori isn’t the only student who wants to stay at McAdams after expulsion or suspension ends. Knowles says there are others, but the crime prevention grant that funds the program covers only expelled or suspended students. Initially the grant was for $120,000; it now is $95,000. The rest of the school’s $125,000 annual budget comes from private donations.

With the decrease in funding, the school has gone from meeting five days a week to four. If he had more money, Knowles said, he would hire more teachers, accept more students, and maybe start a classroom funded by private donations for students to remain at McAdams after their expulsion or suspension has ended.

Maniah, the 14-year-old, said when she gets back to regular school she wants to try out for basketball and spend time with friends.

Most of all, she’s looking forward to getting good grades and being around “cool” teachers.

When she says that, she stops to clarify.

“I think those are the best teachers though,” she says, pointing to Jackson and Butler. “They encourage me. They tell me to do my best.”

Katherine Burgess: 316-268-6400, @KathsBurgess