Lou Rabito: Olney Charter wrestlers overcome behavioral issues

Jon Welsh was kicked out of elementary school for a bunch of behavioral issues. He was bullying other students and misbehaving toward teachers and even the principal.

"Throwing books," he said. "Spitting on people."

Welsh is now an Olney Charter sophomore and a wrestling team captain.

Wilfredo Cruz used to go to school to have fun. For him, fun meant skipping class, getting into fights, and scrawling graffiti.

"My mentality was doing whatever I wanted," he said.

Cruz, too, is a sophomore at Olney Charter and a wrestling team captain.

Olney Charter isn't running a renegade program. Welsh and Cruz have transformed themselves in Success Schools, an alternative education program housed in the school's basement.

"Upstairs, those kids that are struggling behaviorally will get referred to us," said Mike Esposito, program director for Success Schools. "They'll come down into our program, and once they've completed the program, they'll get reinstated upstairs."

Welsh and Cruz, close friends since seventh grade, have been in Success Schools since they were in the eighth grade. They are among about 125 in the program, which uses "redirection" and structure outside the classroom to correct behavioral issues.

Students walk from class to class in a single-file line, with hands behind their backs. Students who stray from the line are redirected to get back in line. Students who say "yeah" are redirected to say "yes". Students walking with their shirttails out are redirected to tuck in the shirts.

The redirection comes from staff members as well as student government members. Students who enter the program and progress significantly can pledge into the student government. Welsh, Cruz, and 20 other student government members assist the staff and don't have to walk in the lines or keep their hands behind them.

Welsh and Cruz said they changed mostly because they didn't have a choice.

"When I was in trouble, nobody cared. They just let me do what I want," Welsh said. "Down here, you've got to listen. And they look out for you. They talk to you more. They even give you the phone number if you've got to talk to them [after school is out]."

"At first," Cruz said, "I wanted to get out. I wanted to go back with the rest of the population. But being the person I used to be wasn't going to get me there. So I had to follow the program."

Both also can't rationalize their old behavior.

"It's dumb. It wasn't worth it. It wasn't cool," Welsh said. "Now, I'd be seeing people trying to bully people and I'd be telling them to stop."

"Sometimes I think, 'What was I doing?' " Cruz said. "What was going through my mind that made me act the way that I was? I really don't know."

This is Welsh's and Cruz's last year in the program, Esposito said.

The two are the only Success Schools students on the wrestling team and are among the team's three captains, coach Barry Lee said.

Cruz is 16-6 at 195 pounds and might bump down a weight class to 182.

Welsh, a heavyweight who weighs 275 pounds, is 24-1, with the loss coming against Interboro's Matt Gould, a state qualifier last year.

Welsh is trying to improve on a freshman season in which he qualified for the Southeast Region tourney.

"It's just like his story," Esposito said. "He gets better as the years go on."


Contact Lou Rabito

at 215-854-2916

or rabitol@phillynews.com.