BLADENSBURG – A couple of months ago, few teachers would have seen much potential in Antione Forrest.
The 14-year-old from Forestville fit the stereotype of a troubled youth. He had low grades, often got in trouble for disrupting classes and was suspended once for fighting.
But since enrolling at Annapolis Road Middle School, Antione has improved his grades and can envision a future as a college football player and pediatrician.
“At first I thought I wasn’t going to be nothing, but now I do,” he says with a shy smile.
Ramona Merriwether, assistant principal of Annapolis Road, a pilot project to curb disruptive behavior in Maryland schools, has a keen eye for the potential in her students. And Antione, she says proudly, “has really changed since he’s been here.”
Antione sees some of his male teachers as role models: “They have a wife, children, house and nice cars. That’s what I want.”
And as for short-term goals, he says, “I just want to get a good education and bring good grades home to my mother.”
Antione is one of about 40 students at the school, a joint venture between the state Department of Education and First Home Care of Norfolk, Va. The facility opened in March and will operate at full capacity this fall, with 60 youngsters from Anne Arundel, Prince George’s, Montgomery, Howard, Calvert and Charles counties.
Students are referred by their home districts for such problems as cutting class, disruptive behavior and poor social skills, Merriwether says. Annapolis Road does not accept children with serious emotional problems because its year-long program doesn’t afford proper treatment, she adds.
Class sizes average about 10, and each teacher has an aide. Hours are long – from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. – with the extra time filled by club and community service activities, study and daily meetings with counselors.
The core lesson, Merriwether says, is responsibility.
She says many see the world as a dictatorship, and do not understand that they can control the outcomes of situations.
“We don’t turn them around, they turn themselves around,” she explains. “We tell them, they have the right to make choices, but it is how and what choices they make.”
Part of her day involves checking in on classes and resolving disputes. The soft-spoken, 45-year-old administrator always has a kind word or a pat on the back for frustrated students.
“Sometimes they get upset, and I tell them, it’s okay to get upset,” Merriwether says.
“These kids have a lot to give, a lot of love, a lot of needs. I don’t see any kid as a bad kid. Sometimes they don’t make the right choice, but that’s not bad. They just need to know someone cares and is not going to give up on them.”
Annapolis Road is housed in a converted, 1940s-style office building. From outside, it’s unremarkable in its urban surroundings. Inside, construction workers scurry to complete renovations. Light washes through large windows into the high- ceilinged rooms.
Making rounds through the freshly painted main hallway, Merriwether stops at the home economics class to congratulate Philip Mangum, 14, champion of the school’s chess club.
Philip enthusiastically challenges her to a match while his classmates wrestle for supplies. Merriwether patiently but sternly persuades them to calm down. They watch her, wide-eyed.
Many of the teachers – just out of college, loaded with enthusiasm – look barely older than the students.
Dawn Lango, 22, and Erica Powell, 23, try to balance teaching basic math skills with the basics of getting along.
Without raising her voice, Lango reminds students to say please, stay in their seats and control their tempers. Some obey, some don’t.
But she says the first students have improved dramatically since the school opened. “Their whole attitude has changed,” she says. “We’ve done a lot of bonding.”
Powell says that although the job is tiring and often frustrating, its rewards can be greater than other kinds of teaching. “There’s more you can work with in terms of goals,” she says. “If we have 10 good minutes in a day, it’ll last the whole day.”
English teacher Kimberly Owens, 25, says teachers support one another. “I think everyone was a little intimidated when they first came in,” she observes.
Physical education teacher Rudy Thompson, 25, relates to his charges through his own experiences.
“I just wanted to help out because someone helped me out when I was younger,” he says. “These kids aren’t bad, they just need a little extra push and motivation.”
Merriwether, for her part, finds the small accomplishments are the fulfilling ones. “Sometimes you see really, really baby steps,” she says, “but to me, it’s a big step.” -30-