Last Chance

Where it’s go to school­ or go to jail

For North County Principal Andy Rimbault, an intake interview like the one shown being conducted here with a young man and his mother is an opportunity for him both to judge the character of a new student and lay down the school’s strict rules of conduct.

For North County Principal Andy Rimbault, an intake interview like the one shown being conducted here with a young man and his mother is an opportunity for him both to judge the character of a new student and lay down the school’s strict rules of conduct.

Photo by Tom Angel

From the outside, on Chico’s Park Avenue, North County Community School could be mistaken for a small warehouse or an off-track betting room. Mini blinds are drawn behind the tinted windows. A nondescript façade lends to the school’s mystery.

Only the few cars parked on the street and in the lot adjacent to the building, which used to be home to Wittmeier Ford, suggest the life inside. There is no marquee prominently displaying upcoming rallies, spirit days or athletic competitions, no student parking lot of handed-down or sweet-16 birthday cars, not one backpack-toting kid milling about the place. In fact, unless you had a reason for finding North County, you might never know it was there.

On the other side of the school’s tinted-glass doors are two classrooms in which some 40 students, ranging in age from 13 to 18, are trying to keep their lives on track. All are making up lost school credits and atoning for previous mistakes, and many are struggling to learn to read just at grade level. Most are here because they were expelled from their mainstream schools, some for incorrigible truancy, others because they broke the law, often violently. For them, this is the school of last resort.

Inside one of the classrooms, several students stare into computer monitors. Others are seated at tables spread throughout the room, reading or writing in workbooks. A teacher at one of the tables gives instructions to a girl, while across the room another adult, the teacher’s aide, helps another student. A tall girl with straight, brown hair walks by, pulling her tightly fitting top over her pregnant belly.

Outside the classroom and down the hall is Principal Andy Rimbault’s office. At first sight, Rimbault, who’s 51, is not an especially imposing figure. He’s of average height, slightly rounded in the middle, with a friendly face framed by straight brown hair layered over his ears and a closely cropped beard where the gray seems more noticeable. Behind his glasses, however, are the eyes of a seasoned principal: ready to pounce if necessary, but content to talk things out first.

The talking part is perhaps a byproduct of having spent years as a drug and alcohol counselor prior to working for the Butte County Office of Education. With his compact build and thick-fingered hands, Rimbault could pass as a trumpeter in a Vegas show band. But the similarities to a horn player don’t end with the physical. Much like the musician who captivates listeners with the natural power and gritty force of his instrument, Rimbault commands the undivided attention of his students.

Every student’s tenure at North County begins with the intake interview. Today, Rimbault meets with a man and his son. They have come to North County from their small foothill community because a judge ordered them there after the boy physically assaulted another student, his former girlfriend, at his former high school. The boy, a freshman, is dressed in jeans and a clean shirt. His hair is cut short with bangs that curl down to his eyebrows. The dad appears to be in his late 50s and also wears jeans, along with a black leather vest over a Harley-Davidson T-shirt. His close-cropped beard and hair down to his neck are white.

The father and son sit in chairs before Rimbault’s desk. Behind the principal, a foot-tall model of a Tyrannosaurus Rex frozen in mid-roar leans out from the top shelf of a bookcase. Rimbault leans over his decks, chit-chatting amiably about the weather and the boy’s hometown before getting down to issues. How, he wants to know, will the boy get to school? When the father says he’s going to drive the youth to and from each day, Rimbault asks, “What’s wrong with taking the bus?”

In a manner that is more matter of fact than confrontational, Rimbault continues: “It’s his job to get to school. He’s a ninth-grader; he’s 15 years old.” The dad nods slowly.

Rimbault then brings up the schoolyard assault. Shortly after being sent home from school because of the fight, the boy entered a mental hospital, the father says. Then, in a steady and calm voice, he utters words no parent could envy: “We felt he was a danger to himself and his ex-girlfriend who he had the problem with.”

Rimbault addresses the boy: “Are you in treatment now?”

“Yes,” father and son respond together. Rimbault then asks a series of personal questions that seem to be searching for something in the boy that will provide assurance that the classrooms of North County will be able to serve this family.

“What do you think happened that day that made you lose focus?” The boy shrugs and mutters unintelligibly. Rimbault seems to be taking in the boy’s slumped posture and forlorn expression. “What event led to your getting hospitalized?” The boy’s reaction is the same.

The father tries to explain there was some confusion at school about exactly who started the fight. A discussion ensues, during which the boy tells Rimbault he had been hospitalized once before the fight, “for suicidal and homicidal feelings.”

Rimbault then asks him, “So how are you feeling now?”

“I don’t know.”

“Are you feeling like day to day now you’re solider than you were?”

Without hesitation, the boy answers, “No.”

“What will it take for you to feel OK again?”

“I don’t know.”

Almost all of the students at North County are below grade level in reading. Aware that reading is key to success in life, last year Rimbault introduced a new reading program that lasts 90 minutes each day. So far the students are up an average of half a grade level.

Photo by Tom Angel

This is enough for Rimbault. The boy clearly isn’t ready to be back in the classroom. Instead, the principal recommends that he enroll in an independent-studies program in which he meets once a week with a teacher outside of the classroom setting. This program, Rimbault explains, works best for kids who aren’t yet ready to be around peers again. He schedules an appointment for the next day for the boy to meet with his independent-studies teacher.

After the father and son leave the office, Rimbault emphasizes to me that, although he’s interviewed many students and families with emotional or behavioral challenges, this interview wasn’t typical. A typical intake interview includes taking the time to learn about the student and his or her level of family support. Rimbault wants to know, for example, who will answer the phone at home or work if he calls during the day. He also ordinarily administers a series of assessment tests.

On average, Rimbault, conducts five intake interviews per week, and, depending on the situation, he will place the students in one of several schools or programs under his control: Independent Studies, South County Community Day School in Oroville, or North County.

He says it’s not uncommon, during these interviews, to talk about such topics as incarceration, electronic monitoring devices, suicidal and homicidal tendencies, sexual abuse, drug abuse, gang banging, mental hospitals and medication. If he decides that a student is ready to join his school, he then carefully explains the rules.

In many respects the rules at North County are similar to those at regular high schools. Attendance is mandatory, progress must be made and shown, and students must maintain a respectful attitude toward staff and their fellow students.

The consequences of not following the rules, however, are severe. Monday through Friday and virtually year round, North County students enter the former car dealership constantly aware of one thing: Screw up here and it’s off to lock-up in Oroville’s Juvenile Hall.

Rimbault leads me down a short, narrow hallway. The carpet is worn but clean, the walls are bare except for a small stucco patch the size of a fist about shoulder high. “I think it was three years ago; it was my first summer school here,” Rimbault says, running his hand over the patch, “I took a kid’s cigarettes from him. He didn’t like that.” The kid was lucky he didn’t hit a wall stud, Rimbault adds.

The patched hole has become something of a Blarney Stone for the really pissed off who have to walk this hall on their way to his office. It’s been patched over several times. Despite the occasional fist slamming into the wall, Rimbault defends the school’s safe atmosphere, saying he’s had only one fight in his nearly four years as North County’s principal. It’s a remarkable statistic, given that some of his students wound up at his school for fighting at their regular schools, where two to three serious fights in a semester was not unusual.

We enter one of the classrooms. It looks normal, though with fewer students and no windows. While a mainstream high school classroom usually has around 30 students seated at desks lined in rows, this one has 16 kids spread out among five tables set in a semi-circle and centered around the whiteboard at the front. Student-created collages of pictures cut from magazines and glued to colored construction paper adorn one wall. Bookshelves filled with novels and dictionaries are set against another.

It is shortly before 9 o’clock on a Friday morning, and most of the students seem engaged in their reading assignments or are busy jotting notes into workbooks. Concerned about low reading levels among his students, Rimbault has blocked an hour and a half every morning toward improving reading skills. “The reading program is a big part of our focus,” he explains.

Earlier, while I was in Rimbault’s office, I’d watched a handcuffed student being led out of the classroom to waiting patrol cars. Before I could ask, Rimbault said, “Dirty urine test. Marijuana.” Sitting now in the classroom, it is difficult to imagine this tranquil scene being suddenly interrupted by police officers, but obviously it happens, and students end up in Juvenile Hall.

When reading ends, the kids get a five-minute break. Some take the opportunity to walk around the room to talk to others. Others remain at their tables. A girl, 16 or 17 years old, uses her ink pen to draw on the hand of a boy. She’s quickly interrupted by her teacher, Will Hyres, who reminds her that students are prohibited from touching each other.

The girl stops drawing, sits back in her chair, folds her arms and tells Hyres, “That’s messed up.”

A boy of about the same age seated at the table behind her chimes in, “You wanna know how messed up that rule is?” He is leaning back on his chair and gives a quick glance to his left and right. His face lights up as though he is about to uncover one of the world’s great injustices. “They said I can’t even touch my girlfriend"—he points his thumb at the girl seated next to him—"and she’s pregnant with my kid.”

There’s no reaction from the soon-to-be mother of his child, who looks to be about 15. She continues her reading as if ignoring the whole conversation. Later, I ask Rimbault if it’s true that the girl is pregnant. He tells me it is, and that she’s 14 and the boy is 16. I ask him if there are other pregnant girls at North County, and he looks up at me from over his glasses and says, “Oh yeah.”

But being pregnant isn’t a reason to end up in North County. Some districts have schools that serve young mothers, such as Chico Unified’s Fairview. Nearly 90 percent of North County’s students are there either because they’ve been expelled from their districts or they’re on probation—and sometimes both. Nearly 15 percent of the expelled students at North County committed violent offenses at their schools. Some are at North County for such minor infractions as riding in a stolen car or playing CDs that turned out to be stolen. Still others committed various drug offenses that led to their expulsion from school or becoming a ward of the court, or both. The pregnant girl, Rimbault tells me, was expelled for fighting.

Only a handful of Rimbault’s students are at North County as a result of excessive absences from their regular high school or middle school.

“Our kids come here with the distinction of having made some terrible choices. I can’t think of one kid who I’ve enrolled that didn’t want to get out of that and try to do better,” says Rimbault.

When he first meets the parents or guardians of his students, one of the questions he makes a point of asking concerns their student’s experience with the traditional school setting. “When I ask parents, ‘How long has school been a struggle?’ almost all of them say, ‘Forever.'”

Many of the students in his school simply don’t do well in the traditional school classroom, where the teacher lectures on a subject while students take notes and ask questions. They’re kinesthetic learners whose style is also impulsive and more than normally susceptible to peer influence, he explains. “They’re the ones who walk into class four minutes after the bell rings, take their seats and spend the next five minutes looking for a pencil and something to write on. They’re gonna walk down the street on a perfect spring day and knock a mailbox off a four-by-four just to see what it looks like.”

Rimbault could have been talking about Alberto. Though he never counted mailbox smashing among his favorite things to do, all Alberto remembers wanting to do when he was 15 was to pick the trees in the orchards around his hometown of Orland and “get messed up.”

Students at North County Community School are encouraged to spend a certain amount of time each day reading books.

Photo by Tom Angel

Now 18, Alberto is a slender young man who is looking forward to rejoining his classmates at his mainstream school in time for graduation this year. He entered North County during his sophomore year in 1999 mostly because he was ordered to do so. “As a sophomore, I just wanted to work in the fields, not go to school,” he says. Today, he feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to catch up on his credits.

When I ask Alberto what he did to wind up at North County, his eyes move away to a spot on the floor beside his shoes, a gesture many of the students present when asked that question. He tells me he came to North County after being caught several times for driving without a license.

For many young Latinos like Alberto, the allure of gang life and illegal drugs often steers them away from the normal high school experience. And while none of the kids I spoke with at North County proffered the ubiquitous victim card so often played in defense of our nation’s youth, there seems to exist among the students, teachers and staff an unspoken agreement when it comes to the offenses committed by the students. Alberto may have been too ashamed or embarrassed to offer up to a virtual stranger public facts about his criminal record, but he was also adhering to one of the school’s unwritten rules: A student’s past is a subject that’s simply not talked about.

“I tell a kid the first day I meet him: ‘I don’t care about what you did in the past,'” Rimbault says, stretching toward the window outside his office where midday Park Avenue traffic thunders by. “All of that doesn’t matter to me.”

What matters is that the student attend class everyday, do the work necessary to stay on track to graduate or go back into his or her regular school, and adhere to the terms of his or her probation, which may include submitting to and passing regular urine drug screenings.

In fact, Rimbault says, Alberto landed at North County following his arrest and conviction for five separate Penal Code violations, including being in possession of a fake ID, felony theft, and possession of methamphetamine for sale. I ask Rimbault how Alberto’s rap sheet compares to others’ at the school. “It’s about middle of the road,” he replies.

After two years, Alberto is something of a fixture at North County and isn’t above crediting the school for helping to turn his life around. He praises his principal for helping him obtain the required work permits and references that led to the 25-hours-a-week dishwashing job at a restaurant near his home.

Alberto suggests he might give college a chance and perhaps get into a banking career and earn “clean money,” as he calls it. He explains that “dinero sucio,” or dirty money, comes from working the fields, where the workers come to work drunk and grow their own marijuana.

Alberto appears to have made great strides since his sophomore year, “Before, I didn’t care about my future; now I see things differently. I care.”

North County’s faculty includes two classroom teachers and one Independent-Studies Program teacher, who meets weekly with students one on one. Keith Murafas has been working in alternative education programs for more than 15 years and has spent the last three as a teacher at North County. Dressed in “casual business” attire, Murafas is a youthful looking 47 years old and is one of three credentialed teachers at North County.

Echoing Rimbault’s assessment that North County students are for the most part kinesthetic learners, Murafas says he tries to keep students focused and tuned in. Outsiders, including educators from mainstream schools where students might be more attentive and generally calmer than his students, “may be surprised how we manage to get the kids on task.”

Murafas participates in a countywide program that brings together new teachers from all districts in the county for regular meetings and encourages them to talk about their experiences and exchange ideas. From listening to the experiences of others who teach at the mainstream schools, he feels his experience at North County isn’t all that unusual. “Some of the things I hear [at the meetings] tell me we’re not too far out of the loop.”

I asked Murafas about the boy and his pregnant girlfriend. He said the situation upset him. “I get angry that we’ve allowed something like that to happen,” meaning society in general. “It’s a perpetual cycle.” He says he knows of veteran teachers at Juvenile Hall and other county facilities who remember having as students the parents of some of Murafas’ students.

Will Hyres, 28, who’s in his second year of teaching, originally wanted to be a high school history teacher. He says he enjoys the freedom of teaching a variety of subjects using a variety of different approaches at North County. Teachers at such community schools cover all the core subjects, but in a different manner. Unlike mainstream schools, where students move about the campus from one class to another, North County students get it all in one room.

Instead of the “one-size-fits-all” instruction offered in mainstream schools, North County teachers provide extensive individualized instruction covering core subjects: math, English, social studies, natural science and PE. Murafas and Hyres agree it is a tall order, but they are assisted by one adult instructional aide each and relatively new instructional materials. Hyres notes that he has eight computers in his classroom for student use.

Because of the varied range of abilities and levels—classes include middle school and senior high grades—each student works at a pace that is agreed upon by the student, the teacher and Rimbault. In the reading program, for example, students read short passages or full-length novels, depending on their ability. “We’re doing phonics with some students,” explains Hyres. They answer questions of comprehension and are gradually led into less subjective and more interpretive analysis as they progress through the program.

Rimbault oversees the reading program, which included specialized training for his teachers. He cites studies linking recidivism rates to literacy rates and tells me none of his students scores above the 50th percentile in reading on SAT 9 and STAR tests, the same proficiency tests that are administered by all California public schools. Only two students in 40 read above grade level, five read at grade level, and the rest read below grade level. Some are only a year behind, eighth-graders reading at seventh-grade level, for instance, while others may be several years below grade level. Of the 33 students reading below grade level, Rimbault estimates the average number of years below grade level is three.

Still, in the face of such seemingly grim prospects and below-normal achievement, Rimbault beams when he talks of how, since implementing the reading program in August of last year, North County students have recorded an average increase of one-half of a grade level.

Rimbault stresses two main differences between the classroom instruction at a typical high school and North County. The first is the language program in which students are being taught to read. “In some cases, we’re teaching the elemental pieces of literacy—kids will be literate, and this will expand their options,” Rimbault says.

The second way North County is different is in the weekly assessments of students. “Each week the teacher sits down with the student and measures progress.” Rimbault adds that, in this approach, a student’s work assignments are matched to his or her ability level.

What’s missing from this story on this remarkable school of caring teachers, unique student population and tough-but-fair principal are the record of graduation rates and the reports from its graduates who’ve gone on to college and credit North County for playing a major role in their success. Although Rimbault would probably love to brag about these kinds of accolades, they simply aren’t there. Rimbault estimates that 35 percent of seniors who go through North County either graduate with a diploma or end up getting their graduate equivalency degree, or GED. And nearly 25 percent of all students end up back in their mainstream school.

But it is the last statistic by which Rimbault also measures success: Only about 15 percent of his students continue a life of offending, digging themselves into deeper relationships with the criminal-justice system and longer periods of incarceration. That leaves roughly 85 percent who, while they may or may not graduate with their peers, have found a different path, one that doesn’t include judges and jail.

Although the school appears a little run down or neglected, Hyres said he thinks the students appreciate it. “The school provides the structure. … Students realize there are certain things they need to do to go on with their life.”

When I think of the boy from the intake interview who at age 15 already had two separate stays at a mental hospital under his belt, it’s hard to imagine wanting him to be anywhere else but at North County.