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October 25, 2014

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Columnist Tom Gorman: On an innovative program to convince youths the value of their education

Tom Gorman's column runs Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. He can be reached at [email protected] or at (702) 259-2310.

The judge is talking to a kid named Hugo, wondering what more can be done to keep him in school.

That's one of the challenges for families living in Las Vegas: There's a big temptation among young people to drop out of school and get a good-paying tip job, such as parking cars or serving cocktails.

And often, too, kids drop out of school, or they stay enrolled but miss too many classes because they care for younger siblings after mom goes to work.

"If you do just three things -- go to school, do your homework and stay off drugs -- you can be anything you want," the judge told Hugo.

He asked Hugo what he aspires to be. An FBI agent, Hugo answered. If you stay in school and work on your grades over the next two weeks, the judge said, "we'll find an FBI agent who can come visit with you."

Sometimes, that's what it takes to keep a kid in school. A little bribery. Or a chance to meet a hero.

Hugo smiled.

Martin, who also struggles to be at school every day, was the next student to face the judge.

He explained that his mom leaves for work at 5 in the morning, so it's left to him to get his two younger siblings dressed, fed and off to school. At the end of the day, he has to collect them as well, and then babysit them until mom returns home.

Sometimes, it's hard for someone such as Martin to drag himself to school after taking care of the children.

"Your mom puts a lot of responsibilities on you, and you meet them, huh?" the judge asked. Martin nodded his head.

Hugo and Martin are among a handful of students at this North Las Vegas school who are at risk of dropping out altogether. So they were asked to participate in a dropout-diversion program offered through the Clark County juvenile court system. The four-year-old program involves nine judges visiting nine schools weekly.

Every Tuesday morning at this school's library, Hugo, Martin and a handful of other students spend an hour with Juvenile Judge Gerald Hardcastle. In most cases, a parent accompanies the child.

The judge, intimidating in his black robe but softened by his smile, gently interviews the students about the past week's successes and struggles. He peruses attendance records, and reviews teachers' reports about their homework, classroom participation and behavior.

"This is just wonderful," he tells a student after reviewing his teachers' reports for the week. "If you don't (attend school), you'll end up in truancy court downtown," he tells another.

And because each student this past week had perfect attendance, Hardcastle heaps praise on each one for overcoming the obstacles and temptations each faces. These are not hardened high school students with an attitude. Hugo is just 11; Martin is 13. They attend Bridger Junior High School.

"I was naive to think that the dropout program should be directed at older teenagers in high school," Hardcastle told me.

"We'd be banging our heads against the wall if we waited that long," he said. In fact, some people think the dropout-diversion program should begin in elementary school.

The good news is, the program seems to be influencing younger children. Hardcastle said younger siblings of students who have been through the program are much more faithful about attending classes at Bridger.

Something's working.

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