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For not quite two dozen Racine Unified high school students, their schoolhouse consists of office space at the Racine County Human Resources Department on Taylor Avenue.

In rooms that would normally be partitioned with cubicles, students sit at round tables and work with teachers on math, English or other academic lessons.

Traditional classroom posters hang on the walls, including one which reads, "We are the future."

But this is not a traditional environment and these students - enrolled in what is called the Transitional Education Program - face a challenging future. TEP is part of Racine Unified's Creative Options for Youth program, an array of alternative environments borne out of last year's school safety concerns.

TEP is a partnership between Unified, Racine County Human Resources Department and the Professional Service Group, a private community agency.

"This is the most restrictive environment we have in the district," said Jose Martinez, assistant superintendent of secondary education.

These students are returning from corrections or detention centers and may have alcohol or other drug abuse issues. Many have been expelled from school for their


In the past, when these students were done with detention or their expulsion, they were dumped back into their previous school environment - a recipe for disaster. TEP provides an alterative environment - at least until they prove they're ready to return - for students with a history of disruptive and violent behavior.

The buzzword in the TEP classrooms is engagement.

"Once they're engaged, they're off and running," Martinez said.

Low student-teacher ratios, academic programs to get students quickly back on track to graduation and accessibility to other human services programs, such as a regular alcohol and drug abuse program, give these students a better chance at succeeding, according to organizers.

"The key component is the relationships the people in the program build with the kids," Martinez said.

All plans are individualized for the students.

"What works for this child may not work for the next child," said Bob Holzum, Unified's director of continuing education.

The program isn't designed to become the final academic home for these students. As the name suggests, transition to a regular school environment is the goal.

"The intent is always transition," Holzum said.

But unlike past efforts, social workers and others will keep tabs on the students as they transition into traditional environments.

"It's not like when they're done here they walk out the door and they're done," said Ann Wing, project coordinator for Racine County Human

Services Department.

For Racine County, the collaboration made financial sense. Most of these students risk deeper involvement with the corrections system, which proves an expensive proposition for the county.

The county could send two students to Harvard for a year - or 16 to the University of Wisconsin-Parkside - for the cost of sending one kid to the state corrections system for a year, County Executive Bill McReynolds said.

"It behooved the county to work with whoever wanted to work with us to keep the kids out of the state (corrections system)," McReynolds said. "If we're successful, it truly saves Racine taxpayers money."

After the first semester of the program, only a handful of

students were ready for the transition to other school environments. But officials were pleased with how the new program was working - keeping traditional school environments safer while giving these students a better chance of


"If we're going to have these kids become a productive part of society, this is the way to go," said Dan Dragic, case manager for the county's youth and delinquency unit.

With roughly $750,000 routed to this program, a lot is at stake.

"It's really like an investment," Holzum said. "In the long run, we know it will benefit everyone."

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