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GED program for troubled teens set to close after clerical error

Mr. B has a very full desk.

Mixed in with pens and paper clips are four knives, two packets of marijuana, and two shining gold bullets. The drawer behind that one is overflowing with bandanas: dozens and dozens of red, blue, pink, and orange gang flags that Mr. B has confiscated.

These are the souvenirs you accumulate running Alpha School, an alternative program in East New York where 17-21-year-olds can earn GEDs, get treatment for drug addiction, and find a place to hang out in peace.

As he hugs everyone who crosses his path, there’s clearly nowhere else Mr. B, whose full name is Barry Addison, would want to be. But the combination of state budget cuts and a dispute over Alpha’s enrollment figures means that, barring an eleventh-hour change, the program’s doors are closing in seven days.

He was notified in mid-May that the program is losing all of its $367,000 in annual funding from New York State’s Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.

“We’re toast,” he said. “It’s going to devastate a whole community. There’s no other prevention services in this neighborhood except for in the schools, and these are the kids who got kicked out of the schools.”

Alpha School is not a glamorous program. The squat green building, covered in rust stains, is set on a desolate, industrial stretch of Linden Avenue in Brooklyn.

But many locals seem to regard the place as one of East New York’s most important safe havens.

Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz sent a letter of support to OASAS, as did the commanding officer of Brooklyn’s 75th precinct Jeffrey Maddrey and Kings County District Attorney Charles Hynes. All of them praised the program’s ability to deal with the neighborhood’s most troubled teenagers.

The students enrolled in school spend from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in class with Department of Education-certified teachers through the city’s GED Plus program, bookended by meetings with counselors and personal tutoring. Then students are free to use the small music studio to rap, shoot pool, or do homework.

Robert Zweig, the DOE official who oversees all GED Plus programs, said in a letter to OASAS, “I can most assuredly speak to the void that would be created in the community that can ill afford any more loss.”

So how did such a beloved program find itself in such dire financial straits?

An OASAS spokeswoman, Jennifer Farrell, said the program lost its funding because of low performance.

The program’s self-reported accountability data “showed that the Alpha School attained only 10 percent of the work plan goals. OASAS eliminated funding to prevention programs that could not attain more than 39 percent of their goals,” Farrell wrote in an emailed statement.

But Mr. B insists that OASAS’s assessment was based on incorrect data.

He admits that program staff made significant errors on the last four years of the organization’s paperwork, which made it appear that the program was working with fewer than 40 kids each year. The reality, he says, is that somewhere between 140 and 170 students spend at least part of the year at Alpha School, which graduates 30 to 40 students with GEDs each June.

“They never trained us to actually put the data in,” he said. “It was a clerical error, just clerical error.”

He said he was told in a meeting earlier this week with an OASAS assistant commissioner that nothing could be done because the money had already been allocated elsewhere.

“They said to me, ‘You make a very good presentation, but we really don’t have any money,’” he said.

The chair of Brooklyn’s Community Board 5, Nathan Bradley, said Thursday that the fight isn’t over yet. As State Sen. John Sampson’s chief of staff, Bradley — who grew up near Alpha School and, as a teenager, used its gym — said Sampson has brought the request for funding to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office.

For now, the program sits in limbo. To 21-year-old Jonathan Andrews, the prospect of Alpha School closing is just another struggle. He took the GED three times before passing, and credits Alpha School’s teachers with getting him to pass the math portion.

Andrews was hanging out there on Thursday, dropping beats as “J Blizzi” and eating pizza with friends, even though he graduated the day before. He said the funding crisis inspired him to write a rap about overcoming obstacles.

“They have to kick me out of this place, so it really hit home. I’m just praying for the best,” he said.

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