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Volume 26, Number 6
November/December 2010

An Academic Foothold for Court-Involved Youth

NCLB improves prospects for troubled teens


Keith Mattos teaches science to incarcerated youth in Westchester County, NY

As the complaints mount over the testing requirements, school labeling, and other mandates of No Child Left Behind, researchers say the federal law has helped one group of students who are seldom the focus of good news: troubled students who are at risk of getting trapped in what organizations like the NAACP and the ACLU have termed the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

NCLB’s requirements, researchers say, have helped boost the academic prospects of students in juvenile justice centers and build on academic gains when those students transition back into the community. The result can be a chance to break a cycle of school failure and give kids a fresh start.

Under NCLB, each detention facility is mandated to designate a professional to focus on transition issues for incarcerated students upon their release. Because NCLB also requires states to track graduation rates, states are pushing for more coordination between schools and residential facilities to share education records, so a student’s achievement behind bars can be credited in the student’s home district. And while many states have granted waivers to detention centers exempting them from Adequate Yearly Progress requirements, the centers are required to hire certified teachers, just as if they were mainstream public schools.

In New Mexico, for example, 60 percent of teachers in juvenile justice facilities have been replaced with highly qualified teachers, according to a 2008 survey of educators in four states undertaken by researchers from Florida State University’s Center for Criminology and Public Policy Research. Seventy-eight percent of survey respondents agreed that NCLB had served as a catalyst for improving education services by promoting interagency collaboration, developing better transition services, and hiring highly qualified teachers, according to the survey.

“[NCLB] has helped educators fight for resources for these kids,” says George Pesta, who is on the research faculty at the Center for Criminology and Public Policy Research. “These students have to meet the requirements, too, and the educational facilities need qualified teachers for the students.”

An estimated 1.6 million youths are referred each year to juvenile courts, according to a 2010 report by the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, with 23 percent ordered to residential placement. Some have committed heinous crimes, such as murder or rape. Others were caught selling drugs or stealing cars. Yet others were arrested for minor infractions, such as disorderly conduct, through school district zero-tolerance policies. Statistics show that students who are suspended from school, often as a result of these policies, are more likely to become entangled in the criminal justice system as adults, according to the ACLU and the NAACP.

Education Behind Bars
Youths who enter the juvenile-justice system have lower school attendance rates, are subject to more disciplinary actions, and are typically several grades behind, says Thomas Blomberg, dean of Florida State University’s College of Criminology and Criminal Justice. One of Blomberg’s studies found that 43 percent of incarcerated youths were diagnosed with learning or behavioral disabilities, compared with 15 percent of public school students. Some teens arrive at detention centers reading at an elementary school level. Many turn 16 with nary a high school credit and have yet to have a positive school experience, he observes.

Yet, the future prognosis for incarcerated students is not equally bleak. Outcomes vary considerably, depending not only on the quality of the educational experience behind bars but also the quality of the transition back to schools, according to Blomberg’s 2010 study, Incarceration, Education and Transition from Delinquency.

The study reviewed the records of 4,147 youths released from 115 juvenile justice institutions in Florida. The students’ school experiences in the two years following release was matched with data on arrests and employment over those same 24 months.

The findings showed that students who achieved academically while incarcerated were more likely to return to school upon their release. Those who then attended school regularly were less likely to be arrested for serious offenses. Youth who returned to school after incarceration were also more likely to be employed. Those who both worked and went to school were the least likely to get arrested again.

Education, made possible with well-coordinated transitions back to the students’ home districts, coupled with strong school leadership, can play a central role in the transformation of youths in the juvenile-justice system into law-abiding citizens, says Blomberg. “Education gives them a sense of hope,” he notes. “They develop more self-control, and begin to realize they can make it in conventional society.”

Building Habits and Credits
The most successful transitions occur for students who have gained academic traction during detention, where they are literally a captive audience. Free from drugs, fueled with a healthy breakfast, and required to attend class, some of the students begin to achieve in the academic world.

Bobby R., a 17-year-old with a buzz cut and dark horn-rimmed glasses, was not academically behind until he began to do drugs and get in trouble with the police. However, he regained his academic footing at the Sprain Brook Academy behind the walls of the Westchester County Penitentiary in Valhalla, N.Y., after his conviction on burglary charges. In 10 months, he passed three of the five Regents exams needed for graduation and picked up four high school credits; he now plans to take his Regents in physics and math. “Before my arrest, I stopped going to class, and was out of control,” says Bobby, who requested that his real name be withheld. “Now, school gives me something constructive to do while I’m here. It feels good to focus on my academics.”

At George Junior Republic, in Grove City, Pa., schools superintendent Robert Post says a strict discipline code helps students typically gain about two years of academic achievement for every year they are in residence at the privately run complex, founded 101 years ago. The school has about 500 students, of whom 75 percent are referred from juvenile courts and 25 percent have been expelled from local schools. The Grove City Area School District receives state aid to fund and run the education program on the private campus. Students carry around a card that gets punched for misbehavior, such as disrespecting a teacher. One punch is a warning; three punches might result in an in-school suspension, or loss of privileges.
Across the country, initiatives have emerged to make sure youths will earn high-school credits for their study behind bars. For example, detention centers such as the New Beginnings Youth Development Center in Laurel, Md., have courses aligned with the local school district curriculum so that students can earn partial high school credits in month-long course modules (see sidebar “0.125 Credits at a Time”). 0.125 Credits At a Time

Washington, D.C., is among many cities and states that have contracted with public or private entities, including charter operators, to improve education for juvenile offenders. On the grounds of New Beginnings Youth Center, a 60-bed secure detention facility for serious youth offenders in Laurel, Md., principal David Domenici has developed a program—the Maya Angelou Academy—that builds on his success with the Maya Angelou Public Charter School in Washington, D.C.

Today, Academy students learn in 22-day units organized under themes. Last year, the social-studies “systems” unit focused on electoral politics and the elections. This year it looked at the drug trade and drug policy.

For each period, students are scored on a 1-to-5 scale on their participation and the respect they show to teachers and classmates. Their points are totaled each week, and students can earn up to $25 for high totals.

There’s a graduation ceremony each month as well, with students awarded 0.125 course credits for completing an academic unit. The shorter modules are an effective innovation for students, who see quick results and can move on with credits in hand.
“We force them into habits that we hope we become natural to them,” says Domenici. “A student may find he likes math or he’s interested in history. We hope they get some academic traction that can parlay itself into a successful transition.”
Some detention centers provide instruction so students with few high school credits can study for GED exams.

Coordinating Successful Transitions
Education behind bars can begin a teen’s transformation to becoming a contributing citizen. But making the transition back to school has proved troublesome: parents and advocates have sometimes had to fight for proper placements—in school district offices and occasionally in the courts—because some school administrators don’t want to admit students involved with the law.

That advocacy has paid off. In the past, New York City school principals could veto placements, leaving students in limbo for months as they received instruction for two hours at home. Today, a student is entitled to return to his home school, though counselors often find more appropriate placement, with more personalized instruction, in one of the city’s smaller high schools. Ninety-five percent of teens are now placed within five days. “The smaller schools tend to be a better match,” says District 79 Deputy Superintendent Tim Lisante. “But it’s good to have the safety net of the student’s old school. That was a great policy shift. We no longer have to fight to get them back in.”

Successful transitions include coordination by correctional staff, school officials, and community service providers, with a focus on engaging the juvenile offender in school or employment, according to a 2009 report by Florida State’s College of Criminology and Criminal Justice. The study includes interviews with nine Miami males who, after leaving residential placements, found that the attention of the staff and well-structured school programs had helped them overcome their negative perceptions of the classroom.

In Florida, school districts have transition coordinators who work with the detention centers to bring youths back into the public system. In Hillsborough County, Chrissy Dorion, a former schoolteacher, places up to 15 students a week in the nation’s sixth-largest school district, which includes Tampa. “These kids deserve a clean slate,” she says.

In Tampa, Chamberlain High principal Tommy Morrill recalls one student referred by Dorion who came to the school after serving time on a weapons charge. The student, then 16, failed in the traditional classroom, which provided too many opportunities to skip class, and too few consequences if he was caught. So after meeting with the student, his parents, the social worker, and the probation officer, Morrill placed him in the GED program, which featured online instruction, supervised by an adult education teacher, from 7.30 a.m. to noon. The student earned his diploma, entered a job-training program, and is still employed. “Getting him in a structured program with a facilitator, in one room, seems to work,” says Morrill.

David Domenici, principal of the Maya Angelou Academy—the school based at the New Beginnings Youth Center—says that finding the right school can be a struggle for students emerging from detention centers. “These students need schools that have highly engaged teachers, a strong community of support, and some tolerance for kids working on deep-seated problems,” he says.

Principals say having a personal relationship with a student and his or her parents—along with a structured program for gaining credits toward graduation—can be essential to transition back to society.

After serving time in a juvenile detention center, students returning to Roosevelt High School in Yonkers, N.Y., first report with their parents to the principal’s office. There, principal Jade Sharp lays down her expectations for good behavior and her goals for that student, which include high school graduation. The plan includes specific goals for each year, so the student will be on track to graduate.

Sharp recalls helping one student keep on a positive path upon his return to Roosevelt. She encouraged the student, who played drums, to join the school band during lunch, which kept him away from his old crowd. He also took classes at Roosevelt’s summer academy to catch up on missed credits. “If you give the structure, are positive with the student, and keep checking in with them, they will trust you and know that they can come in if problems arise,” she says. “You know they are getting plenty of pressure from the outside to get in trouble again. I want them to feel safe here so they can get a diploma. That’s the starting point for a new life.”

David McKay Wilson is a freelance journalist based in New York State.

For Further Information

For Further Information

The Center for Criminology and Public Policy Research has studied the effects of NCLB on the education of court-involved students and provides resources for educators.

ACLU Racial Justice Program

Children’s Defense Fund Cradle to Prison Pipeline Campaign

Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline. New York: NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., October 10, 2005.

T. G. Blomberg, G. Pesta, and C. Valentine. The Juvenile Justice No Child Left Behind Collaboration Project: Final Report 2008. Tallahassee, FL: Florida State University Center for Criminology and Public Policy Research, 2008.

T.G. Blomberg, G. Pesta, C. Wright, and S. Ciftci. The Juvenile Justice No Child Left Behind Collaboration Project: Proceedings of the 2006 National Conference on Juvenile Justice Education and No Child Left Behind. Tallahassee, FL: Florida State University Center for Criminology and Public Policy Research, 2006.

P. Leone and L.Weinberg. Addressing the Unmet Educational Needs of Children and Youth in the Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare Systems. Washington DC: Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, May 2010.

National Juvenile Justice Education Data Clearinghouse