The boxy Fullerton classroom resembles any other--rules posted on the wall and kids' sketches displayed prominently--until you read the students' goals for the year.
Written in wobbly print and hung for all to see, the aspirations sound nothing like regular elementary school fodder--no dreams here of becoming a fireman or owning a puppy.
Instead, they outline heartbreakingly earnest desires that hint at why the students have come to this school and what they have to accomplish to leave it: I will not cuss in class anymore. . . . I will learn to accept no for an answer. . . . I will not fight in class. . . . I will not kick anyone in school.
Behavior problems in increasingly younger children, combined with more stringent rules about student misconduct, have given birth to a whole new class of public schools: alternative academies for expelled elementary school students and those with chronic behavior and truancy problems.
They contrast with the old ways of dealing with troubled and troublemaking elementary school students--quietly sending them to another district, enrolling them in private schools or expelling them to uncertain destinations.
Within the last several years, the Orange County Department of Education--which runs the schools of last resort for teenagers--has opened two mini-campuses for children 8 to 12 who may pose a threat to their peers in conventional school.
The preteen who tired of his classmates' taunts and brought a knife to school. The fourth-grader who swiped neighbors' bills from their mailboxes and tried to cash them like checks. The tiny boy who set fire to his desk while trying to light a firecracker. The Fullerton Academy is their school.
"It's always a shock to find out young kids get expelled, but they do," said Dan Sackheim, a consultant in the educational options office of the state Education Department. "They still need to be academically challenged and supported socially."
The number of schools for the younger troublemakers soared after a 1995 state "zero-tolerance" law mandated expulsion for students caught with weapons or drugs or who tried to commit a sexual assault. A companion bill gave individual school districts the authority to open their own alternative schools, called community day schools, rather than relying solely on county education departments.
Some 175 school districts statewide operated community day schools this school year, compared with 15 three years ago. The number of these academies educating elementary school students--who by law cannot be housed with older students--has jumped from 26 schools serving 134 students two years ago to 84 schools educating almost 1,300 children this year.
Both the county and district alternative schools have small class sizes, serve students who have been expelled and offer psychological help such as anger management to families who want it.
Backers of the alternative programs call them a breather for students headed down the wrong path--a chance to start fresh, learn better habits and return to regular school. But a critic of zero-tolerance rules sees the potential for misusing the schools. Tustin education lawyer Veronica Norris, who has handled zero-tolerance cases, wonders if traditional schools are too quick to send their behavior problems away. The students might have learning disabilities, emotional problems or special needs that call for different responses, Norris said.
"I think removing a child, especially [an elementary school student], from his community is one of the most severe forms of punishment that a school can hand out," said Norris, also a registered nurse. "And it should be reserved for only the most serious offenders after exhausting the special education system and counseling and some of the other things schools can employ."
Educators deny that such things are happening.
Rather than isolating students, The Fullerton Academy helps struggling students get their behavior under control so they can grasp academic material, said Helen Moore, the academy's principal. School districts, loath to lose funding tied to student attendance, make many attempts to help students close to home.
"I don't recall any situations where a kid was just dumped because a teacher doesn't want to deal with him," she said.
The Fullerton Academy, now in summer session in a bland storefront, is taught by Rebecca Turner, who has worked in special education and juvenile hall, and instructional assistant Alfredo Torres, a former Marine. There, the 15 or so students hunch over spelling tests, read stories aloud and study the parts of cells.
Students come from Fullerton, La Habra, Anaheim and Brea. Some are poor, their clothing tattered and ill-fitting. Others sport cargo pants and designer tennis shoes. They come from varied ethnic backgrounds.
Their academic abilities also span a wide range. During one lesson, a gregarious sixth-grade boy stumbles through reading a simple sentence aloud, while one of his classmates, clearly a better reader, squirms in his plastic chair.
Sitting still seems a universal problem. The boys wiggle in their seats. Pencils bob. A boy so short his feet can't reach the floor swings his legs back and forth. For others, the only outlet for their unbounded energy is repeatedly asking to use the bathroom--just so they can move around.
Energetic as they seem, the boys--few girls are referred to the academy--are subdued compared with their behavior when they first joined the school. Back then, frustration over a math concept might have led to a toppled desk or a flung pencil.
Now they draw pictures for Turner, a reed-slim woman shorter than some of her sixth-graders. They talk about how cool Mr. Torres is.
With such small classes--Torres and Turner usually split the students into groups of eight to 10--the instructors are able to spend real time talking to their charges. They dole out points for good behavior, which eventually translates into small toys, such as tiny model cars, or the right to play computer games during breaks.
The kids, as Torres put it, are learning "how to play the school game."
"They're just more socially appropriate," Turner said. Before "you might have had a student get frustrated and start to curse. Or he doesn't understand something, so he might throw his paper on the floor. Now the ones who have been here for a while are more apt to raise their hands . . . and say, 'I need help.' "
For one mother, whose 12-year-old graduated from the Fullerton Academy to his old school in March, the school and proper medication helped her son cope with attention deficit disorder. He learned how to make friends and stopped fighting with his peers.
"He's going back to regular school now--that's good," she said during a party in her son's honor.
Still, her son was about to leave a sheltered group of 15 for a new class of 33. They were nervous, the mother said, but ready.