Friday, March 28, 2003

Safety net

Dohn school struggling to help kids


With every toke, the young man knew he was blowing away his future. Yet the 17-year-old Blue Ash junior couldn't stop smoking marijuana.

It made him lazy, careless. He couldn't sleep, and he was frustrated when he wasn't high. He'd do homework but forget to turn it in. His mediocre grades slid to failing. Dreams of going to a good college floated away.

A counselor recommended Danto Dohn Community School, a tiny charter school in Walnut Hills that helps kids with the effects of drug or alcohol addiction.

Now the young man is one of 45 teens attending the modest school. He wears the uniform white shirt and khakis. He submits to random drug tests and voluntarily attends twice-weekly, 12-step programs and counseling at school.

And he's keeping up with school work. The gangly, mop-topped youth said Thursday he has been clean for a month.

"They tell us straightforward: It has to be our decision," he said. "This school's existence is to encourage us, much more than any public school."

Dohn is a "recovery school," says its principal, Kathleen Bower. It picks up kids other schools drop. But its struggle for funds keeps it from helping more kids who need it.

Legal wrangles

Zero tolerance policies in Ohio have meant public schools aren't required to educate certain troubled kids. Students found in possession of or under the influence of drugs or alcohol can be expelled for 80 days or more.

Many just drop out, says Bower, a retired teacher and administrator in Lakota and Forest Park. She founded Dohn in September 2001 after research showed that city and suburban schools expelled an average 180 to 185 students a year for drugs or alcohol.

"What happens typically is that these students' education comes to a screeching halt," Bower says.

"They're out of school without enough treatment options for adolescents. And they're left to continue abusing drugs and alcohol and getting into further trouble."

Dohn is a meager safety net. The school is two small classrooms and a few tinier rooms jammed into a one-story building, which is hidden behind a bigger three-story building it can't afford to renovate.

(Cincinnati Public Schools had used them for storage.)

Inside are the typical high school classes along with twice-a-week group therapy, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, drug rehab sessions and art classes.

About 500 volunteers and board members have been painting and renovating both buildings. Cincinnati State volunteers will show off their work at an open house there today.

But heavy lifting is still ahead. The main building needs a new roof, floors, windows, walls and an elevator, which will cost $1.5 million. So far, federal grants total $500,000.

"Suburban systems like Lakota are raising $22 million for new buildings," Bowers says. "Raising $1.5 million ought not be this hard."

Meanwhile, Dohn is caught in the legal wrangles over charter schools.

Charter schools are privately run, independent schools that compete with public schools for state funding. Teachers unions are challenging the legality of charter schools in court, arguing that taxpayer money shouldn't go to schools not governed by publicly elected school boards.

In the Cincinnati area, most students are referred to Dohn by probation officers, drug treatment plans and counselors, Bower says.

But many more students could benefit if alternative schools like Dohn were supported.

If Dohn could open its main building, up to 200 troubled kids could get another chance at high school.

E-mail or phone 768-8395.

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