Teen girls get second chance

With only 10 students, Eileen Reederís social studies class is small, but its goals are lofty. The students are teenage girls, often truants or juvenile delinquents, who have opted for an alternative day school instead of a detention center or boot camp. Some of their crimes could have even earned them significant time behind bars, but instead, they are being given a chance to turn around their lives.

At Orange Countyís Practical Academic Cultural Education Center for Girls -- known as PACE -- girls donít just study U.S. history or current events. Along with plans to improve their grades, young women are learning about responsibility, self-esteem, relationships, pregnancy and, sometimes, parenthood.

The compassionate reformatory, which has its roots in Jacksonville and has 20 schools statewide -- including one in a downtown Orlando building where Reederís class is held -- is considered a model for the nationís juvenile justice system. This spring, the American Bar Association featured PACE in the study "Justice by Gender: The Lack of Appropriate Prevention, Diversion and Treatment Alternatives for Girls in the Justice System."

One of its students, Farrah Heath, 14, says she wants to be a new person. She is already in a new school, new city and is getting used to new faces.
Farrah was arrested on a petty-theft charge earlier this year, and now her wish is simple. "My top priority is to get to the ninth grade," said Farrah, a tall and fair-skinned teen with wide eyes that have seen a lifetime of struggles at home and at school.
Trouble seems to follow the Sarasota native. She flunked the eighth grade last year and doesnít think highly of counselors or psychologists. "I was running away constantly since I was 10," she said.
After barely a few days at Orlandoís PACE program, Farrah can already perceive a difference in her old and new surroundings.
"They seem to be a little nicer, for one," said Farrah, who wants to go to college and become a veterinarian. "They donít have to yell all the time. They seem to have the time to help you."
Besides adapting to a new school, area and friends, Farrah also is getting used to living with a dad she barely knew until recently.

Kellie Oom, executive director at PACEís Orlando office, said the common denominator among the teens is bad grades and a bad attitude.
"Sometimes theyíre not ready to be here," Oom said. "We make it very clear weíre gonna get in their business."

School has waiting list
Close supervision is paramount.
With a staff of 16, including four social workers and six teachers, PACEís Orlando branch can take up to 50 girls during an academic year. The small classroom settings, with 1-to-10 teacher-student ratios, donít allow for a large student body, and there is a waiting list for prospective students.
A 14-year-old former PACE student, who comes from a broken home, was caught shoplifting pens at a Winn-Dixie earlier this year.
For that, she spent a day at a juvenile-detention facility and faced a juvenile court judge who sent her to PACE instead of serving time at a juvenile center.
She thrived, becoming a model student who went from straight Dís to Aís and Bís, and now she is ready to return to her old school. She chuckles at the thought of facing her ex-friends and former teachers.
"I was with the wrong crowd before," she said. "Now when I look at it, it was stupid."
These days, she pays more attention to homework and chores at home.

"It helps you when teachers are there behind you," she said. "Our teachers are not only teachers but advisers."
The teen has a simple plan for success once she returns to her old middle school.
"I guess if I stick to my conscience, Iíll do fine," she said.

Another PACE student has done just that since failing ninth grade at Orlandoís Boone High School.
Andrea Johnson, 17, now works part time in addition to going to school and aspires to become a lawyer.
"At public school they donít care if you succeed," said Andrea, an articulate teen who enjoys speech classes and wants to study English literature at Rollins College.
Andrea has some advice for those unwilling to embrace PACEís rhythm.
"Theyíre only hurting themselves, because if they donít make it at PACE, I donít know where they can do it," she said.

Not everyone succeeds, though, at the nonprofit agency that receives more than two-thirds of its annual budget from state and local funds.
About two to four percent of the girls run up against the law again after leaving.
"We still struggle with truancy," Oom said. "Just because they walked through our doors, that doesnít mean they left their troubles behind."

Successes raise eyebrows
The programís successes have already caught othersí attention, and there is talk of expanding the program to other states with high juvenile crime rates among girls.
In addition to the American Bar Association recognition, the American Association of University Women and the National Girl Caucus have given awards and accolades to the organization that has served more than 2,000 since its inception in 1985.

By Pedro Ruz Gutierrez | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted August 19, 2001