StepUp: Helping Kids with Discipline Problems Stay in School

StepUp: Helping Kids with Discipline Problems Stay in School

Barbara Armstrong

Armstrong, Barbara. (2013). "StepUp: Helping Kids with Discipline Problems Stay in School." Alaska Justice Forum 30(1): 8-10 (Spring 2013). This article describes StepUp, a diversion program for expelled or long-term suspended high school students developed in 2009 by the Anchorage School District and the Alaska Division of Juvenile Justice. StepUp provides a highly structured voluntary program that includes academics, anger management training, physical activities, and community work service for students who have had serious discipline problems. Over 80 percent of the 101 students in StepUp from 2009 to 2013 have continued their education. The program was expanded in 2011 to include middle school students.

High school students who are long-term suspended or expelled from the Anchorage School District (ASD) for aggressive behavior-such as fighting, acting out, or a weapons offense- get a second chance to stay in school and on track to graduate. This second chance is a diversion program called StepUp-a unique partnership between the school district and the Alaska Division of Juvenile Justice. StepUp provides a highly structured voluntary program that includes academics, anger management training, physical activities, and community work service for students who have had serious discipline problems. The program motto is "A Second Chance at Success."

StepUp opened its doors in the summer of 2009 and grew out of the efforts of the Municipality of Anchorage Anti-Gang & Youth Violence Initiative established in 2005 by then-Mayor Mark Begich. The goal of the initiative was to intervene and prevent youth from entering the juvenile justice system. Participation in the initiative expanded to include the Anchorage, Kenai Peninsula, and Matanuska-Susitna boroughs. In 2008 The Report of the Tri-Borough Anti-Gang and Youth Violence Policy Team and Anchorage United for Youth was released. The report recommended the creation of a program for "students who are expelled or suspended from school for over ten days, but who are not eligible for existing public or alternative education programs."

This new effort, called StepUp, was described as "an education program utilizing ASD-aligned curriculum with the goal of reintegrating students back into the ASD system, if appropriate." StepUp, which began as a pilot project, is now in its fourth year. It was expanded in November 2011 to include a program for middle school students with discipline problems. Classes at StepUp are small. There are 12 slots for high school students and 10 for middle school students, and one teacher for high school and one for middle school.

StepUp is jointly supported by the Anchorage School District and the Alaska Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). For these first years of the program, ASD has provided the teaching staff, including a social worker who is a transition coordinator, a special education teacher who works with the students one day a week, ASD-aligned curriculum, computers, and other equipment. DJJ has paid the rent on a facility downtown, the cost of breakfast and lunch food, and assigned three specially trained juvenile justice officers to facilitate the aggression replacement training (ART) and substance abuse training components of the curriculum. Currently StepUp is in a strip mall downtown, but the location is close to buses so students can get to class, and the program provides bus passes for students who need them. The location also allows students easy access for field trips to such places as the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center and special performances for school youth at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts.

Intervention and Prevention

Programs such as StepUp are intervention and prevention measures aimed at keeping kids from entering the correctional system by giving them the opportunity to stay productive in school and get a high school diploma. Students attend StepUp with the goal of transitioning back to their home school or another ASD school. Sometimes students will transition to a private school or go outside of the district altogether. If a student enters StepUp with enough credits to be close to graduation, he or she may end up graduating out of StepUp and obtaining a diploma. (Students in ASD need 22.5 credits to graduate.) Not all students stay in the StepUp program: some withdraw voluntarily, and some are discharged for behavior issues. But the majority of youth who enter StepUp successfully continue their education.

The goal of StepUp is to prevent young people from entering the juvenile justice system, but some students coming into the program have engaged in alleged delinquency. In any given semester, about 50 percent of the high school students at StepUp are already in the DJJ system. These students have been identified by staff of the DJJ Community Detention program as candidates for StepUp. A student's status in the DJJ system is confidential, and the Anchorage School District is not notified about which students have engaged in alleged delinquency. Students who are in the DJJ system are assigned a juvenile probation officer who checks in with them periodically.

The juvenile justice officers at StepUp are not probation officers. They are part of the program staff, and are responsible for facilitating the aggression replacement training and substance abuse awareness training that is part of the StepUp curriculum. They accompany students during community work service, physical education activities, and field trips as well. Juvenile justice officers are also trained to recognize and defuse certain situations. The youth at StepUp have a history of aggressive behavior. These officers know when a student is becoming agitated, and by intervening, they can prevent the situation from escalating.

The school year at StepUp is the same as for other ASD schools, but sometimes extends by a week or two to permit students to complete coursework. StepUp is an open entry program-students can enter at any time during the semester. More often than not, there is a waiting list to get into StepUp. The small class size enables good supervision and one-on-one interaction with each student.

Who goes to StepUp?

ASD high school students with aggressive behavior or weapons offenses-students who have been involved in fights-are eligible for StepUp. (Weapons may include, for example, pocket knives, as well as firearms.) As of November 2011, middle school students (grades 6, 7, 8) with aggressive behavior offenses are eligible for a separate program designed for middle school, but housed at the same location as the high school program. Since its inception, StepUp has served 155 students-101 males and 54 females. An additional 13 students have opted to do online coursework at home through StepUp.

Under Anchorage School District policy, students are eligible to attend StepUp until the semester they turn 20 years of age; special education students are eligible until the semester they turn 22. StepUp students under the jurisdiction of DJJ can also attend classes until the semester they turn 20, even though DJJ jurisdiction ends when a student turns 19 years of age. DJJ jurisdiction students certified for special education services can attend StepUp until the semester they turn 22. In the high school, most of the students are in 11th and 12th grades. The staff estimate that 70-80 percent of the students come from less privileged backgrounds. A number of minorities are represented in the student population. In reviewing data for 101 male and female StepUp students from 2009 to 2013, over 80 percent of them continued their education after being in the program. (See Table 1.)

Table 1. StepUp Students 2009-2013

How is a student referred to StepUp?

Typically a teacher, student, or staff member sees or reports an incident at school which is then referred to the school principal or vice-principal. There is an investigation which looks at the severity of the incident and the history of the student(s) involved. DJJ and ASD are concerned with the right level of intervention at the right time-a concept often discussed in juvenile justice reform research.

After investigating, if the school decides on a long-term (usually 45 days) suspension or expulsion, the matter is referred to the ASD Secondary Education office. (Students with a handgun violation may be suspended for one year according to federal guidelines.) At ASD, the Secondary Director of Discipline reviews the file and determines if the student is eligible for referral to StepUp. Once that eligibility is determined, the student is sent by the school district to DJJ where a staff person from the DJJ Community Detention Programs meets with the student and the family to talk about the incident and the option of StepUp.

StepUp is a voluntary program. The parents and students must want to participate and must agree to certain requirements. At an intake interview, the DJJ staff person explains the program and rules of StepUp. After a student enters StepUp, a school social worker meets with the youth to outline the conditions established by ASD for students to return to their home (or other) ASD school. These ASD requirements may include counseling, a forensic evaluation, and community service. Students may also be required to write a letter confirming their desire to return to school. In some cases, restitution or other appropriate action may also be mandated. An ASD social worker assists the family and students with all of these requirements.

A School Day at StepUp

The start of the day is staggered, with high school students arriving 30 minutes before the middle school group, and middle school students leaving 30 minutes before the high school group. High school runs from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and middle school is from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. The two groups never meet or mingle or see other. All students who enter the StepUp building go through a metal detector. They empty their pockets. Cellphones and other electronic devices are surrendered for the day and are locked in a filing cabinet. Students have their own lockers to store other items, but they can take their backpacks to their desks. For a half-hour before class, students can go into the make-shift kitchen and get some breakfast before the day officially begins. Once students enter the building, they are there until the school day is over-StepUp is a closed campus.

The security screening at the start of the morning helps students know they are safe in the classroom. Everyone has been through the metal detector. Each student comes with a history of some kind of aggressive incident(s), and making sure that everyone feels secure at school is an integral part of the StepUp program.

There are desks with computers in both the middle school and high school classrooms. In each classroom, the teacher and one or two juvenile justice officers are always present. At each desk, two students work quietly on individualized computer instruction programs or on non-computer-based projects developed by the teacher. The teacher and juvenile justice officers can monitor what each student is doing and offer help when they see a student struggling. There is an advisory at the beginning of each day reminding students of the daily schedule and expectations. The rules for StepUp are posted on the wall of each classroom and taped to the students' desks. These rules include, among other things, no alcohol or drugs, no weapons, no inappropriate language, no cigarettes or lighters, no gang colors. The StepUp dress code requires tattoos to be covered at all times. No tops with low necklines may be worn by female students. The rules stress the importance of respect for staff, teachers, and students.

Each part of the StepUp day is designed to help students acquire life skills as well as academic ones. The morning is devoted to course work and helping students get the academic credits they need to graduate. Outside of school hours, students can also earn up to .25 elective credits for working at a job. StepUp has partnered with Nine Star Enterprises to identify employers who will hire StepUp students.

The curriculum includes a segment on aggression replacement training (ART) which is done in a group setting and involves role playing and dialogue. These sessions are facilitated by the juvenile justice officers. The training focuses on trust and confidentiality and helps students to recognize what triggers their anger, identify their emotions and physical sensations when they are angry, and learn ways to manage their feelings and stay in control. For high school students, this is a 10-week course. Middle school students receive five weeks of anger skills management training because their terms of suspension are generally not as long as those for high school youth. Students also have the option of filling out a "Hassle Log" to help gain insight into a problem that is bothering them. A stack of "Hassle Log" forms are in each classroom, and students are encouraged to fill these out and bring them to the anger management session. Each form has questions about what happened, when and where, and asks the student to evaluate how he/she handled the incident, and what anger control concepts were involved in the event.

Physical education is part of the core curriculum as well, and physical activity is an important part of the StepUp Day. In the afternoons, students take walks and hikes, play basketball or go to the ball fields.

In addition to computer-based curriculum and text book curriculum, students sometimes work on thematic-based projects such as a map or a timeline. A timeline project many students have chosen is one highlighting the negative and positive things that have happened in their lives. The timelines are hand drawn and posted on the walls of the StepUp classroom. Sometimes the timelines are labeled "Good Things/Bad Things." Under "Good Things," students have noted such events as "got a job to help my family," "started to take school more seriously," and "I won my first award in school." But the timelines are sobering. They often record one or more violent deaths of family members or friends, having to move out of a home, parents divorcing, a parent leaving, getting caught for a crime (such as stealing), being kicked out of school, losing a job, and thinking about suicide. Many of these students come from challenging home situations. StepUp provides a safe, structured environment with clearly defined expectations for youth who often have had only negative relationships with adults and people in authority.

At lunch, students are free to heat up items in the microwave and hang out in the kitchen with staff. In the afternoon, students participate in physical education and community work service. StepUp has partnered with a number of agencies including the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, Salvation Army, Catholic Social Services, and Anchorage Parks and Recreation, to do clean-up and other activities. Such community work service is a way of showing students how to work on a team and complete a task. Russian Jack Ski Area, for example, traded ski opportunities for community work service by the students. Some students were able to use skis from the Municipality of Anchorage, while others used equipment received through a grant written by the StepUp high school teacher. For most of the students, it was the first time they had ever been on skis. Middle school students from StepUp have done cleanup at Fairview Community Recreation Center in exchange for time in the gym.

What Do the Students Think About StepUp?

Most high school students stay about one semester in the StepUp program. When they exit the program, they fill out an evaluation form that asks them to rank StepUp on a scale of 1 to 10 and to list their "Likes" and "Dislikes" of the program. These evaluation forms are reviewed by ASD and DJJ. StepUp gets a "10" from almost every student. And one student who seems to have clearly understood the lessons taught in StepUp about the need to continually apply oneself to a task wrote, "I would rate ‘StepUp' a 8, just because there is always room for improvement." Some other sample comments are below:

  • "Do I really need to leave!!?? I DON'T WANT TO."
  • "…they pick you up when your [sic] down."
  • "From a scale, 1-10 I would rate this program .. BROKE MY SCALE! Haha."
  • "One thing I hate is calling this a program! I consider it to be my school!"
  • "[We are] treated like family."
  • "[It's a] safe place."
  • "I always remember to check my ego at the door." [A reference to one of the building blocks of aggression replacement training.]
  • "…it [StepUp] gave me a second chance when no other school would."

A number of students also mentioned how much they liked "working at my own pace." The individualized computer instruction at StepUp allows students to progress through the curriculum at their own learning speed, and to repeat the modules they need to study more. The classroom teacher assists students with assignments and can guide them through the online curriculum.

The students definitely had their dislikes- "getting searched every morning," "that we can't listen to our iPods," and "[being] guarded 24/7." But again and again under "Likes" were references to the teachers, juvenile justice officers, and staff. The evaluations by students reflect their respect and affection for these adults who are so committed to this program, and genuine regret at having to leave a "school" where they have at last felt safe, acknowledged, and part of something.

The Next Step for StepUp

StepUp, as noted earlier, is a unique partnership between the Anchorage School District and the Alaska Division of Juvenile Justice. DJJ and ASD are seeking larger and more appropriate space downtown for the expanded program of both middle school and high school students, and each agency will be covering a portion of the program costs. A handful of programs across the nation have similar relationships with school districts. All of these efforts are part of the Smart Justice movement and juvenile justice reform. These initiatives recommend funding programs that concentrate on intervention and prevention measures-measures that give youth a second chance.

For more information on StepUp go to web page of StepUp's high school teacher.

Barbara Armstrong is the editor of the Alaska Justice Forum.