At Seattle's Interagency Academy, a part of the city's public-school system for students who have been expelled or are otherwise not making it in regular schools, teacher Frank Whiten sees himself reflected in his students.

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Frank Whiten doesn’t think the students of Seattle’s Interagency Academy are bad kids.

Despite all he’s seen in a dozen years teaching at King County’s juvenile-justice center — the fights, the truancies, the lack of focus — Whiten believes the teens are products of their environment and in need of support.

Of course, Whiten is biased: He used to be one of them.

While the 36-year-old did not attend Interagency himself, his childhood reads like that of many of his students, from growing up without an involved father to getting kicked out of high school.

He is now among 49 teachers and staffers at Interagency, a little-known program that serves some 500 of the hardest-to-teach students in Seattle Public Schools.

Although it is funded as a normal high school and awards regular diplomas, the program is actually a network of 12 mini-schools across the city, based in facilities run by community-based organizations.

Many of the students have had discipline or attendance problems and struggled in regular schools. While some have simply gone adrift, others are caught up in gangs, drug-addicted or homeless.

The students’ success or failure has little to do with the program’s curriculum, said Michael Tolley, an administrator who oversees all middle and high schools in Southeast Seattle. Rather, it is dependent on the staff’s ability to motivate.

The program’s teachers and “corrective educational associates,” who teach social skills, are gritty themselves, mostly middle-aged, energetic and experienced in working with challenged children.

“You have to have the ability to do the job of a teacher, an administrator, a career counselor and a mental-health therapist,” Whiten said. “You have to be able to adjust to the personalities in the room on the fly.”

The teachers who can’t do that don’t last long, he said, driven out by the frustration of failure: The program’s on-time graduation rate is only about 20 percent.

Columbia City native

Whiten grew up in Columbia City as one of seven children (three older sisters, three younger brothers). He watched his brothers as early as age 8 because dad wasn’t around and mom, a German immigrant, worked odd jobs at meatpacking plants and a cleaning company.

Whiten attended nearby Whitworth Elementary, then got bused to Whitman Middle in the North End before going to Franklin High.

In his first year at Franklin, Whiten earned only one-quarter of one credit. The reason was simple: He scarcely ever attended. He also got in trouble for gambling with friends on school property.

After getting kicked out, he went to Ballard High, where he found fewer distractions. Three years later, he managed to graduate, but just barely.

Then he started working at a Kmart in Renton and taking classes at Seattle Central Community College.

Interagency staffer Cindy Ortega found him there and invited him to work 20 hours a week teaching life skills to kids in juvenile detention. Whiten started the job as he finished up at Seattle Central.

It was difficult work.

“Early on, it was tough,” Whiten said, remembering how students swore at him and wouldn’t follow his instructions. “I used to say, ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I at this school?’ “

But he stuck with it, eventually taking advantage of a school-district program enabling instructional assistants to become fully certified teachers.

In 2003, he became the head teacher at Alder Academy, a separate Interagency site housed in the same building as juvenile detention, at 12th Avenue and East Alder Street.

“Guiding light”

Aside from detention and the site in the King County Jail, Alder is the most intense of Interagency’s sites — and the only one where those entering must go through a metal detector.

On any given day, only about 20 or fewer kids attend the site, a handful of rooms connected by a long, white and barren hallway. Many are on probation or house arrest, or are special-education students on individualized education plans.

The kids take small-setting classes in math, language arts and social skills, in addition to working on online classes.

Each Interagency site follows a similar model, although with a slightly different focus — at the YMCA site downtown, the students are older, have commitments at home and are usually focused on online classes; at the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center site in West Seattle, students work with artists who live in the building; and at the Youth Care site in South Lake Union, many of the students are homeless.

The small size of each site allows teachers to work creatively to figure out how to reach individual students.

For Whiten, that usually centers on getting students to experience something they haven’t really experienced before: success.

“If we can get to the end of the quarter and I can pop you out a progress report that says you’re passing all your classes, and if you repeat this for one more quarter, then this semester you’re probably going to get more credit than you’ve ever gotten in your high-school career — for them to experience that level of success, I think that’s something that’s tangible, that I can put in their hands and use as a guiding light,” he said.

The kids have the ability to excel, Whiten said. But their potential often is not recognized at comprehensive high schools by teachers who don’t understand them, he said.

Kaaren Andrews, who runs Interagency along with longtime administrator Robert Gary, said there always will be a need for the program.

“It’s the kind of thing where you want to go out of business,” she said. “But it won’t happen until big high schools figure out how to serve every single kid.”

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.