By STEPHEN SIFF
VINDICATOR TRUMBULL STAFF
HOWLAND -- They wound up at C.A.S.T. because they hated school, skipped class and got into trouble.
And now, weeks before classes are to begin at Creative Alternative School for Teens, these once-troubled students are cutting out of summer vacation to hobnob with classmates and teachers.
"I like everything here," said Christopher O'Brien, a stocky fifth-grader who started at C.A.S.T. in January after he kicked out a window in the public school he attended in Newton Falls. He said he was mad because other children were picking on him.
"He made F's and had a hard time in class comprehending," said his mother, Donna. Christopher's first report card from C.A.S.T. had six B's and four C's, she said.
Beginnings: C.A.S.T. was started three years ago by a former Howland superintendent to help children he saw being lost in the public schools.
Several have gone on from this program to get high school diplomas. Two passed all sections of the senior proficiency test -- quite an accomplishment, considering most of the kids had failing grades when they entered the program, said Richard Baringer, who does not draw a salary for his role as "chief educational officer."
"I started the school because there was a need," said Baringer, who ran Howland Schools from 1989 to 2000. "I saw too many kids that had the potential; they just needed a little different setting."
Academic trouble: Students who come to C.A.S.T. were in academic trouble at their last school, often because they had trouble paying attention in a regular classroom.
Academic difficulties can lead to skipping class and frustration from failing can prompt kids to act out. "They give up on themselves. They give up on school," Baringer said.
Setting: Four classrooms on the ground floor of Living Lord Lutheran Church offers the 15 or so students a setting more like a one-room school house than a big contemporary institution. Parents or home school districts pick up the cost of $2,700 per pupil.
The kids range from fifth grade to about age 16.
Individually tailored lessons are frequently taken outside for hands-on demonstrations. Children are encouraged to help each other and are grouped according to ability, not age.
Instruction is shared by three teachers and a volunteer.
"If you have trouble with something here, they help you with it," said ninth-grader Mike Flood, whose grades have gone from D's and F's in Howland Schools to A's, B's and C's at C.A.S.T.
"We get kids who were told they are stupid," said Jason Beagle, a certified teacher at the school who appears only slightly older than his students. "They were told they are less than other kids, so ... that is a lot of baggage they bring with them."
Few problems: Every one of his students has broached personal problems at one time or another, but there are few discipline problems at the school, which lacks a formal system for punishing students.
"We haven't needed one," Baringer said. "We sit down with the students and talk to them."
School officials are not shy about talking to parents, relatives or probation officers, either.
They request a list of phone numbers when children are interviewed for admission and if a child is more than 15 minutes late, they start making calls.
A main criteria for admission is that both the student and parents want the child to be there, Baringer said.
"They are really good with the kids here," Donna O'Brien said.