St. Paul has turned to a young man who lifted himself out of poverty and homelessness to turn around its programs for at-risk students.

Armando Camacho, who came to St. Paul from Puerto Rico when he was 6, is the St. Paul Public Schools assistant director of Alternative Learning Programs. With the hiring of Camacho, 33, in August and the opening of the new Gordon Parks High School this past fall, district officials say they hope alternative programs will find new focus and effectiveness.

Camacho believes he is the right man for the job.

"When I think of alternative students, I'm one of them," he said.

His is an almost improbable story. When he moved to St. Paul's West Side to live with his grandparents, he spoke no English. Instead of going through a program for English language learners, Camacho was simply held back another year in first grade. In 1987, he moved back to Puerto Rico, where he attended junior high school but, at the age of 15, he returned to the West Side.

This time he had to find his own place to live.

While a student at Humboldt High School, he lived with various friends, moving from house to house. "At times, I found myself homeless," he said. "And I had to work if I wanted to eat."

Still, thanks to teachers, counselors and coaches at Humboldt, Camacho said he found the drive to participate in National Honor Society, student council and sports.He began to think about becoming an educator.

After two years of playing football at the University of St. Thomas, he transferred to St. Cloud State University to become a special-education teacher. He earned his degree while living in public housing in St. Paul and commuting to the central Minnesota school every day. He earned extra credits at community colleges.

In August 1997, he was hired by the St. Paul schools as a special-education teacher.

Camacho was an assistant principal by the age of 26. And he was hired as principal of Whittier School in Minneapolis at 29. In Camacho's three years at Whittier, the school increased its enrollment from 280 to 500 students, launched a challenging International Baccalaureate program and proved that inner-city kids could succeed.

"I've always had a desire to have a greater impact on our educational system -- particularly in urban schools," he said.

His task now is daunting. Alternative programs in Minnesota enroll nearly 150,000 students, through summer school, extended day programs and alternative high schools meant to give kids at risk of dropping out a second, third or fourth chance at earning their diploma. The trouble is, over the years, many districts have used alternative programs to take their most problematic students, but then have done little follow-up on how well those programs are working.

What numbers have been available show low test scores, poor attendance and spotty graduation rates -- if graduation rates are tracked at all.

St. Paul's alternative programs, which include a high school for the creative arts, a program for young mothers, a program for students recovering from chemical dependency and Gordon Parks High, which replaced the district's Unidale alternative school, have the same issues. Teachers and officials can point to student successes. But few can demonstrate the overall effectiveness of alternative programs.

Camacho said he wants to change that.

"First of all, we have to change the perception of alternative education, internally and externally," he said. "We need to promote what we do. We need to be up front about our challenges. We need to make ourselves more rigorous, more relevant and we need to build relationships."

Gordon Parks High -- which replaced the cramped, windowless leased space in the Unidale strip mall -- is a big step in that direction.

A beautiful cafeteria allows students to have breakfast and lunch in the school. A real gymnasium gives them a place to exercise and burn off energy. A new computer lab, a new industrial technology classroom and a fully equipped science lab mean students can do hands-on work.

Science teacher Joel Abdella said the potential for learning in the new building is greater.

"I've got a better facility to actually deliver chemistry. In my old room, I wouldn't. It was unsafe to do those kinds of things," he said.

By next fall, Camacho said, Gordon Parks High School may also have a specific program focus -- perhaps film, photography and writing to commemorate its namesake.

And that is just the start. Camacho said he wants alternative schools to attract the best teachers, those who can teach kids who have failed in traditional schools following traditional methods.

"I see Gordon Parks as a cornerstone of our alternative schools. And a message to our families that we care about our alternative learners," Camacho said. "The days of these schools being seen as a dumping ground for students, staff and administrators are over."

James Walsh • 651-298-1541