Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center employees are lending an ear to high school students faced with problems.
Charlie's "classroom" at Lawrence High School knows no bounds; he's out in the parking lot as students pull up in the morning, he's across the street at Veterans Park on lunch breaks and he's bumping into students in the halls.
Charlie Kuszmaul isn't like the other authority figures at the high school. For one thing, he's Charlie, not Mr. Kuszmaul. The former blue-collar worker -- he's been a welder, heavy-machinery operator and construction worker -- now works with the intangible: teen-age emotions.
As Working to Recognize Alternative Possibilities (WRAP) coordinator at LHS, the 48-year-old social worker for the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center meets with students with disciplinary problems. Kuszmaul and other WRAP counselors at the Lawrence Alternative High School and Free State High School are involved in an innovative approach to curtailing truancy, suspensions and discipline referrals.
"There's some tenets that I operate with. I never tell a student they're wrong, and I never tell them they are bad," Kuszmaul said. "They get that all kinds of places, and it's not a particularly useful thing."
He doesn't balk at using profanity when talking with students because guarded language leads to guarded thoughts, he said, and the last thing he needs is formality blocking him from the root of a problem. A basic tool in helping a student make the right decisions, Kuszmaul said, is the four-word question, "Is it worth it?"
"Does what you're doing in this situation ... work? Does it get you where you want to be?" he said. "Clearly, if they are suspended, if they have to deal with the vice principal, if they are kicked out of class, it's not working."
Words instead of fists
The three WRAP coordinators (all Bert Nash employees) and four Washburn University and Kansas University graduate students have no authority to suspend or discipline students. They generally have free rein in the schools, pulling students out of class whenever they want to chat. Their salary is paid through a grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in Topeka. But their work is integral to some students who can't or won't function in the educational system.
"Teachers, by and large, are very concerned about the student population, but it's just that they have a job to do here," Kuszmaul said. "Their day is full of teaching, and they would like to have someone that can reach out to the students that clearly have a problem."
Those problems may stem from a number of things, from dysfunctional family backgrounds to a student who is just having a bad day.
"We've had lots of successes," said LHS Principal Dick Patterson. "From what we've seen in the classroom, the student isn't carrying around a lot of anger. I think the key is that they know how to be responsible; they're thinking constructively instead of destructively."
James Benimon II and Marques Devoe, both 18-year-old students at LHS, attend weekly group sessions with Kuszmaul that allow black male students to talk about what's on their minds. Both say Kuszmaul has kept their tempers in check.
In the past, Benimon would say things that he'd back up with fists.
"I was suspended something like 36 times last year," he said. "This year it's been only two times. I would get in so much trouble. It's my mouth. My mouth got me into a lot of trouble and a lot of fights."
Devoe, a transfer from Free State High School, pushed someone down a flight of stairs there last year. No one seemed to care a lot about what was bothering him.
It was different with Kuszmaul, who showed up at his front door with Patterson one day to talk to Devoe's father.
"Any time you have a problem, if you can't go to nobody else, you can go to Charlie," Devoe said. "If I disliked a student last year, I'd just handle business. Now I go to Charlie."
The WRAP program was first introduced to local high schools in the fall of 1997, and John Jones, child and family program manager at Bert Nash, said it's already working.
In the first year of the program, chronic absences (five or more a semester) dropped 20 percent from the previous year among the 224 participating students. Out-of-school suspensions dropped 19 percent and discipline referrals decreased 13 percent in that same time, Jones said.
Pat Roach, Bert Nash's community development director, said that success has lead to a $130,000 grant from the Kansas Endowment for Youth Funds that will place WRAP programs in all Lawrence junior highs. A timeline for the program hasn't been set, but Bert Nash and school district officials are meeting this week.
"It's been one of our long-term goals to become more involved in natural settings -- schools and homes instead of here in the office," Roach said. "Of course, the natural setting for kids is the school. ... Ideally we should have this in the elementary schools, which is our ultimate goal."
Benimon summed up a key to WRAP's success.
"When we come in here and talk about stuff, (Kuszmaul) is real with you. He doesn't talk to you like a regular teacher," he said.
Aimee Ziegler, WRAP coordinator at Free State High School, agreed.
"It's a different perspective from the one they were going to get from the vice principal or a teacher," she said. "The same student isn't going to tell a vice principal something because he doesn't want to get in trouble."
Chris Koger's phone message number is 832-7126. His e-mail address is email@example.com.