Compass points students in right direction

Published 8:09 am Tuesday, May 3, 2005

By By Lee Weyhrich
An old school building sits aside MLK Drive; the old Escambia Middle School building.
It is often forgotten as people drive by it each day, but instructors within the school are making sure their students are not forgotten.
Though the building is no longer used as a middle school it is one of the county's most important learning institutions.
The school was reopened a little over three years ago as the Compass School; a drug rehabilitation center for children in Escambia County. At the time it was owned by the Bridges rehabilitation group. In August 2004 South West Alabama Mental Heath took it over and opened it up not only to children with drug problems but children with emotional and behavioral problems.
"This is a therapeutic alternative school basically," Director of Childrens Services for South West Alabama Mental Health Diane DuFriend said. "Therapy is a big part of what we do. They're good kids that were headed down the wrong path and we wanted to get them headed the right direction. That's why this is called the Compass school. We guide children down the right path."
The staff of the school is made up of the school's disciplinarian Major North with the Marine Corps Reserve, one regular teacher, a special ed teacher and Diane Calloway, the school's program coordinator. That staff takes care of 45 troubled teens.
"Right now we have right on 45 which is our capacity," Dufriend said. "In February we opened it up for direct school referral. There are three ways they can be assigned to this school; they can come straight from school, they can come through the JPO (Juvenile Probation Office) or they can come through the judge. John Fountain, Nick Spring, Gloria Barton and Fred Lancaster are our JPOs."
Judge David Jordan is the juvenile judge for Escambia County.
"The main benefit for me as the juvenile judge of Escambia County is as a way to keep children in this county," Jordan said "In some cases I would much rather keep the boy or girl in Escambia County and help address the problems that the Juvenile is experiencing. The beauty of the Compass School is they are kept here. We are able to meet the basic needs of the child and address the behavior. Sometimes we're able to help those kids and they come out as better citizens of the community, better students and better kids."
The school has served 125 children in its three years of service.
"We've served 125 kids and out of that 94 have been deterred," DuFriend said. "Not all the kids are successful, some have to be sent to a more restrictive environment."
Many of the ones that are successful return to school or take their GED tests at Jefferson Davis Community College.
To make it through the school's program the students have to complete a number of goals.
"This is a nine month program but if they finish it early by completing their goals they can leave early," DuFriend said. "It is a minimum 90-day program. If they complete those goals within three months they can return to their regular schools. They have to succeed in their community, their school and at home. They have to get along well here, the JPOs tell us how they're doing in the community, and the parents tell us how they're doing at home. A lot of the kids that go through this program had never been held accountable before. We look for them to learn accountability, responsibility and self discipline. They are busy from 7:30 until 3:30 and they get 30 minutes of recreation time a day."
"Before we discharge a student we talk," Calloway added. "We want them to be successful everywhere. Up until recently the only children in this program came through the court system. We all work closely together. The judge stops by to give encouragement from time to time."
One of the ways the children learn discipline and earn encouragement is through the military program at the school.
"They have two ways they can advance; through the behavioral program with four levels and then through the military program as well," DuFriend said. "Orientation is the first week or two, yellow is the next level, then green, and orange is right before they graduate the program."
Certain children are chosen as leaders and students can earn military rank and privileges by completing goals.
"The way I try to do it is pick the kids with the most motivation or someone with JROTC experience, North said. "If I have a problem choosing leaders then I go to the councilors and see if they have a suggestion."
North has had a fairly long history working with troubled teens.
"I was in Colorado doing it with the schools there," North said. "I wanted to move closer to home (in Mobile). I went to the Internet and saw the Bridges program and started working for them in Mobile. About a year later they opened up this school so I've been here ever since. I started back in 1995 with the boys and girls club."
Through that experience and his time in the marines he learned what it takes to motivate people. As in the real military rank and privileges can be taken away.
"They can have rank taken away from them as quick as they earn it," Calloway said. "They feel like they are in control and they like those pins. When they have them they are considered peer staff."
The pins (rank insignia) are just one of the ways the school promotes positive feedback.
"They're eager to hear positive feedback," Calloway said. "One of the JPOs even came over one time to throw a party for all the kids that passed the drug test, and he brought cake and things that he paid for out of his own pocket."
According to DuFriend there's only one other program in the state similar to Compass School.
"Most of the ones around here are residential things where the kids stay there 24 hours a day," DuFriend said. "These kids can go home and be a part of their community and practice the things they learn here at home."
According to Calloway this program is not for dangerous children or anything like that. It is for children who are having trouble coping with their environment.
"We've got a good group of kids here," Calloway said. "Not everybody is appropriate for this program. I learn just as much from these kids as they do from us."
There are children from all walks of life at Compass.
"We have a cross section of kids," DuFriend said. "We have kids from rich families, poor families, kids with parents that own their own businesses. It's about half and half both in race and in sex. When I first took over this school we had just three females and we only had 13 or 14 people altogether."
The school will probably never have more students than it does now.
"I think with the smaller number we will continue to be more successful," DuFriend said. "The bottom line is the program is successful."
In fact the program is so successful that DuFriend hopes other counties will begin similar institutions.
"We're hoping to have one of these in each of the four counties we serve; Escambia, Conecuh, Monroe and Clarke," DuFriend said.
Jordan believes Compass is a great asset for this county.
"I would have to say that the folks at the Compass School do a good job.," Jordan said. "Mental health is doing a good job of running that program and the two school systems are helpful, and the officers and I think it's a successful collaborative effort."
And how does the school measure its success?
"Sometimes they come back to visit," DuFriend said. "They tell us how they're doing and what they're doing and thank us."
Some have gone on to college and become nurses and business professionals.
"I like to hear parents call to tell us their kids are still doing good," Calloway concluded.

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