In elementary school Kalyin was the target of bullying, and by high school, it had taken its toll. Kalyin ran away from home, went to two high schools and dropped out of both. But at the PACE Center for Girls, a Miami-Dade County Public Schools Alternative Outreach Program for girls ages 11-17, she was transformed. She became a school leader, won the Department of Juvenile Justice Star Student of the Year award, and has graduated from high school.
Until Kalyin came to PACE, she said, “Nobody seemed to understand what I was going through. Instead of asking me what was wrong and trying to help, people made it seem like I was just a bad kid.”
Like Kalyin, all the girls at PACE face serious challenges. They come from unstable families, are failing in school or have other serious school issues, have health or mental health problems including eating disorders and thoughts of suicide, demonstrate negative attitudes or behavior, and/or have experienced victimization of some sort. Substantial numbers have histories of arrest, family members in prison or on probation, experience with physical and/or sexual abuse. Seventy-five percent live in poverty or near-poverty. Every girl accepted to the program is living with at least three of these problems.
And like Kaylin, most do well. Whereas 79% were failing one or more classes before coming to PACE, 94% improve academically as a result of their PACE experience. More important, while 31% had criminal involvement before PACE, 92% have no involvement with crime afterwards.[i] At PACE they acquire a positive sense of themselves and their potential, and they gain an appreciation for respect, integrity, excellence, and courage.
How does PACE do it?
The answer begins with the application and intake process. After carefully reviewing the referral application (which can be submitted by parents, teachers, counselors, probation officers or anyone else who identifies the need), academic records and other documentation, and after interviewing the girl and her family, the staff analyzes her needs and whether they feel they can help her. They offer placement only to girls who they feel fit well with the current student body and whom they feel they can help. But while the answer begins with a careful selection process, the key to the program’s success and the core around which every other aspect of the program is built – discipline, counseling, academics and community service -- is its total commitment to positivism.
Even when an applicant is not offered a place, “we never say ‘reject,’” said executive director Sherry Thompson Giordano. “If we can’t help them, we help them find the program that can help them best.”
Although some girls are referred to PACE by the juvenile justice system, no one can force them to attend. And in agreeing to take placement at PACE, each girl must buy in to certain conditions: to attend every day, to attend 12 months a year, to respect others, to not disrupt the classroom. She must agree to The Five P’s: to be prepared, prompt, patient, productive, and polite. The girls are held to these standards with a complex system of reminders, positive reinforcement and rewards.
The Five P’s and nine guiding principles are everywhere: signs in every classroom and every office. They’re decaled on the walls of the hall in colors that are designed for calming and learning.
“We iterate, reiterate, and live these values.,” Sherry said. The staff expect this behavior from the girls, and the girls quickly learn they will receive it from staff in return. While the staff will not tolerate disrespect, the girls know that every staff member is on their side. Because the school’s values are modeled consistently by the staff, the school environment is comfortable and embracing, unlike many of the girls’ homes. Before long, PACE feels safe and protective. It’s the place they want to be.
Good behavior is rewarded and inappropriate behavior recorded on an elaborate system of beads and charms. Every girl carries a “bead sheet,” a card on which teachers note the good behaviors they observe. At the end of the week, marks on the girls’ bead sheets are tallied, the girls’ behaviors are noted on their records, and the girls receive beads reflecting these good behaviors, which they wear on a necklace they received when they were admitted to the school. At the end of the month, the girls exchange their beads for charms – 10 beads for one charm. Every six weeks, they can use these charms as currency at the school “boutique,” where they can purchase cosmetics, jewelry, clothing and accessories.
|Girls exchange beads for charms|
“The girls try to act as though none of this matters, but it really matters to them. They want as many beads as they can get,” Sherry said. As acquiring the beads becomes competitive, it generates positive self-esteem.
Progress is further noted at “level ceremonies.” PACE has identified four levels of growth and leadership, reflecting behavior, attendance, punctuality and academic performance. The level ceremonies acknowledge this growth, and other rewards follow: the opportunity to address community groups or to represent the school at luncheons and breakfasts, for example.
|Monthly Level Ceremony|
This is not to say that PACE’s positive approach works instantly or flawlessly. Especially at the beginning of each girl’s time at PACE, compliance with the school’s expectations is less than perfect and on occasion there are major episodes that require police intervention. But, in the spirit of positivism and the school’s strength based approach, no one talks about punishment. “We don’t say, ‘you’ve been a bad girl,’” explained Sherry. Instead it’s “You have other choices you could have made. Let’s talk about why you made the choice you did.”
This approach acknowledges that in the heat of anger people sometimes do things that they wouldn’t do if they had the time and the composure to think the situation through. This approach gets the girls to begin to recognize that every choice – good or bad – has consequences – good or bad. And it helps to teach them how to cope.
In class, if a girl is displaying inappropriate behavior, the teacher will give a verbal warning and a negative mark on the bead sheet. If this doesn’t work, she will give what PACE calls a “redirect.” The girl is asked to remain in the classroom and to think about what better choice she might have made. If she gets a second “redirect” the same day, she and teacher discuss her behavior and some better alternatives. In a third “redirect” that day, the teacher focuses on growth and change. And on the rare occasion when there is a fourth, the school calls home and the girl is sent home for the rest of that day and the next with a writing assignment to reflect on why she was sent home.
But, stressed Alexandra, “They don’t put you down.” Alexandra, who came to PACE after skipping classes, getting suspended, and having a physical altercation with a classmate, credits this positive approach with her ability to control her emotions and improve her grades and attitude.
Supporting all this positive reinforcement is a strong scaffold of counseling. Upon acceptance, each student meets with her counselor to identify her issues and devise a plan to deal with them. Sara, for example, had trouble controlling her anger, was failing in school, and was dabbling in drugs. So she worked with a partner organization that provided drug treatment and education. In weekly sessions, she worked with her counselor on managing her anger. And her teachers focused on her academic deficits.
Sometimes parents need counseling, and sometimes they must agree to accept it as a condition of their daughter’s acceptance. In these cases, PACE makes referrals to partner agencies.
Once a week, the staff gathers to discuss each student’s progress and intercept incipient problems. To the extent that confidentiality allows, counselors help teachers and staff to understand the issues driving each girl’s behavior. Every two weeks the girls meet in “psychosocial groups” to focus on subjects such as health and wellness, grief and sexual exploitation. Once a month, each student and her parents meet with the counselor and teachers to discuss progress. And once every three months, staff makes a home visit.
Superimposed on this system of counseling and positive reinforcement is a structured school schedule. Girls arrive at school for breakfast at 7:30 a. m. They secure all their personal possessions, including purses and cell phones, in a locked room. If they are not wearing their school uniform, they borrow uniform clothing from the school. Everyone must be in uniform.
Classes, divided into 90-minute learning blocks, begin at 8:00, with a break for lunch at 11:30 and dismissal at 2:50. Students take math, science, social studies, English and intensive reading. Students are placed into middle school and high school cohorts with 10-12 students per class, each class separated into three or four learning levels. Some high school students are working at middle school level, and the teachers are especially adept at managing this. The math teacher, for example, can teach basic arithmetic and algebra in the same class. Time in class is set aside to complete “homework” and work on study skills. Also scheduled into these 90-minute blocks are community service projects and classes in life skills and career readiness.
“I have never met teachers as nice and understanding as these,” said Emily whose traumatic childhood with a drug-addicted mother and the foster care system left her defiant, truant and on the verge of being expelled from school. “They are [at PACE] because they care about us succeeding. You do not know how much it means to have so many people who care.”
|Sherry Thompson Giordano and PACE girls|
PACE is open year round, students are admitted on a rolling basis, and students typically remain at PACE for 15 months before graduating or returning to their home school. They come from the length and breadth of Miami-Dade County usually by public transportation, with passes issued by the school. As time to leave PACE approaches, the girls work with their counselors on transitioning out and then return once a month to meet with the counselor. Every three months, the school holds a transition celebration, a reunion of sorts for former students.
Begun in Jacksonville 30 years ago, the PACE concept is now a statewide network of 19 schools. PACE Miami is the newest center, with 70 students, 17 staff and two interns. Half the school’s annual budget of $1.7 million comes from the Department of Juvenile Justice, 20% from the Department of Education, and the balance from private funding.[ii] When funds permit, PACE would like to open a second center at the south end of the county.
PACE Center for Girls of Miami
1400 NW 36th Street, Suite 200
Miami, FL 33142
T: 786-254-2460; F: 786-456-4682
Sherry Thompson Giordano, Executive Director
[i] Statistics from PACE Center for Girls 2014 Annual Report
[ii] PACE is currently raffling a seven-day Royal Caribbean cruise as a means of raising funds for the Miami Center. Drawing will take place December 10, 2015. https://app.etapestry.com/cart/PACECenterforGirls/cart17/index.php