Outreach Academy Aims to Get Middle-schoolers Back on Track

by Clare Trapasso
New York Daily News
November 15, 2012

A small Richmond Hill middle school is offering troubled kids with alcohol and drug problems a chance to get back on track.

Most of the students at Outreach Academy, now a year old, were ordered by court or parole officers to attend the alternative school, where they get help with their studies while overcoming addictions.

And for some, this is the end of the line — it’s either straighten up or go to juvie.

Outreach Academy math teacher Natasha Moore with students (left to right) Roquelina Fernandez, Jocelyn Perez, Cameron Wood and Daniel Romero. (CHRISTIE M. FARRIELLA FOR NEW YORK DAILY NEWS)

“It’s a second chance for these kids,” said Neil Sheehan, executive vice president of the Outreach Project, a drug and alcohol treatment group which runs the school with the city. “They’re good kids making bad decisions.”

The grades 6-through-8 academy, with small group of a little more than a dozen students, opened last fall to help kids get sober and into high school, he said. This year, the school has restructured the program to include uniforms and more family involvement.

Outreach’s students, ages 13 to 16, take regular drug and alcohol tests and receive addiction counseling and family visits in addition to their studies, he said.

Students that can’t stay sober are sent to Outreach’s residential drug and alcohol treatment program in Ridgewood.

“If we can get them early and get them to be able to start high school with a clean slate, then they’ll be on a path to a more successful life,” said Outreach Assistant Principal Christina McLeod.

Eighth-grader Jocelyn Perez, 13, of Jamaica, said she was sent to Outreach last year after she showed up to school drunk and threw up on her principal.

“I was getting addicted to weed and alcohol,” she said. “I was hanging out with gang members and they used to do it, so I wanted to do it too.”

Perez said she’s now been sober for two months and her grades have improved.

“I’m doing better,” said Perez, who hopes to one day become a heart surgeon. But “it’s hard.”

Fellow eighth-grader Cameron Wood, 16, of Brooklyn, who was left back twice, said his old school sent him to Outreach after he was arrested for armed robbery.

“It’s a good school,” said Wood, who initially didn’t want transfer to Outreach. “It helps you get clean.”

But Jeffrey Butts, who examines crime reduction strategies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said programs that label recreational drug users as addicts can be actually be dangerous.

“Trying marijuana is typical during the teenage years,” he said. So “we can end up doing more harm than good by singling someone out and saying ‘you’re not normal and we need to do something special with you .’”

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