Schools should care about all the Kelseys

Last modified: 5/24/2012 12:00:00 AM
Children and teens with emotional and behavioral problems can drive parents and educators to distraction. They are far more likely to drop out of school, get into trouble with the law and be unemployed. Kelsey Carroll was one of them, but she made it.

Carroll's life during her senior year at Somersworth High School, and how enlightened educators helped her turn it around, is the subject of a new film by Dan Habib, the resident filmmaker at the University of New Hampshire's Institute on Disability and the Monitor's former longtime photo editor.

The film, Who Cares About Kelsey?, is airing now at Red River Theatres in Concord, and it will be shown to assemblies at Concord High School and Pembroke Academy. It is a must-see for anyone who works with children, parents struggling to understand and help their child, policymakers, people in law enforcement and anyone who likes a good story.

What viewers will learn, and what educators all over the state are learning, is that detentions, three-strikes-and-you're-out rules, corporal punishment (which is banned in New Hampshire schools but still in use in many states), suspensions and other punishments don't work to change the behavior of children and teenagers. That's doubly true when a child has emotional or behavioral issues that cause them to act out, wall themselves off or give up on learning.

Habib's film spotlights an approach that's working at Somersworth High School and at least 10 other schools across the state. It's a comprehensive program of supports for positive behavior and the RENEW system designed to help students on a path to failure set goals for themselves and get the support they need to achieve them.

Where the program has been instituted, discipline problems have plummeted and at-risk students have begun to succeed.

Carroll was diagnosed as having Attention Hyperactivity Deficit Disorder in elementary school. Her parents had divorced and she was, for a time, homeless. Her mother was a substance abuser. Carroll became one too, as well as a drug dealer who lashed out at people and engaged in self-mutilation. She is smart, pretty, extremely witty, mature beyond her years and passionate about doing what she can to help young people with problems like hers escape failure.

RENEW stands for rehabilitation, empowerment, natural supports, education and work. The program pairs at-risk students with trained educators who give them academic and emotional support, help them set career goals, find an employer willing to mentor them, and point the way over or around obstacles. When they do, the student succeeds and taxpayers save money.

The RENEW program adds roughly $5,100 to the cost of a child's education, a price that's far lower than paying for alternative education or the $60,000-plus cost of hospitalization or out-of district placement in a residential school. More than three-quarters of the students in one RENEW program graduated or earned a GED, and two-thirds continued their education in college, apprenticeships or certification programs; 95 percent of the RENEW students in another cohort completed high school.

Who Cares About Kelsey? is, at heart, not about programs but people, their challenges, and better ways to help young people overcome them. It is, as Habib said, about empowering problem kids like Kelsey Carroll, because trying to overpower them doesn't work.



Sens. Andy Sanborn and Jeb Bradley voted in favor of medical marijuana legislation. Yesterday's editorial misconstrued their position.

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