Entering the grounds of the Wyoming Girls’ School in Sheridan, Wyoming, there are no gates. No barbed wire. White-tailed deer roam the grounds. The only fences at this secure juvenile detention facility are meant to keep the horses from escaping.
Tim Campbell, who has been teaching at the school for eight years, recalls the first time he saw the place.
“It looked more like a private school,” he says. “It’s a gorgeous campus.”
But this is not a private school. The 39 girls — ages 14 to 18 — who have been sentenced to live here have all broken the law. They've committed mostly non-violent crimes, like drug possession and parole violations. Although they’re not locked in, they can’t leave, and they’re monitored constantly.
Tens of thousands of kids nationally have been sentenced to live in secure juvenile justice facilities. Many of them, including some of the girls at Wyoming, are failing in school or far behind when they get there. They’re also suffering from emotional and behavior problems.
Research shows that many of them make no progress or, worse, lose ground during the time they are locked up. Many kids never return to high school when they are released. Kids who do go back, often drop out.
In December, the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice issued guidance urging states and school districts to stop failing incarcerated kids and make education a top priority in these facilities.
"Despite their location in a facility, secure care classrooms should not be considered lesser learning environments where outdated materials and busy work are the norm,” the report says.
The guidelines call for juvenile justice facilities to focus on education, rather than punishment. To that end, states need to increase funding and step up their efforts to recruit and retain high quality teachers. Kids on the inside should be taking the types classes that will prepare them to succeed when they get out; classes that focus college readiness, and include the educational technology that’s become common in public schools around the country.
“Technology is no longer the way of the future," says Chris Jones, superintendent of the Wyoming Girls’ School, which was one of the first secure juvenile justice facilities in the country to embrace the digital classroom. “It is the status of the current. So it is our job as educators to integrate that into how we are educating kids.”
To that end, the school has incorporated educational technology in nearly all its classes, as well as in sports. In geography class, for instance, students use Google Earth to explore the streets of Manhattan and other cities. In horticulture, they will soon be using iPads to monitor temperature and humidity in the greenhouse. And, in computer science class, girls are learning to code.
Teacher Jordan O’Donnell, who has been instrumental in bringing tech into the school, says he is trying to, “empower these students here to think them beyond what got them here to get them involved in coding, STEM, science technology engineering and math.”
Fourteen-year-old Shawnee, who asked her last name not be used, has been at the school for just under five months. In that time, coding has become her thing. She says it gives her a sense of control.
“When people mediate they do that to come at peace with themselves,” she says, in a way that makes her sound much older than she is. “That's kind of what coding is for me, it's my meditation.”
She’s already taken the computer science class offered by the school, so she's doing a more in-depth online class in her free time. She says, ultimately, she wants to get a degree in computer science, then go work for Google. Or a video game company.
“If I hadn't been here and hadn't discovered coding, I would be running around like a chicken with their head cut off trying to figure out what I'm doing to do with my future,” she says. She also points out cutting class isn't exactly an option.
The Wyoming Girls’ School has a budget of about $6 million a year; it doesn't include line items for new teaching technology.
So, to create these digital classrooms, the teachers and administration scraped together what they needed. They snagged some hand-me-down wi-fi equipment from the local public school. They use free tools, like Google for Education and Edmodo. O’Donnell raises money using a site called Donors Choose, a kind of Kickstarter for teachers.
“I can't imagine a student especially in a high school setting, or in a college setting, not having touched a piece of technology finding success in school without having those skills taught to them,” says Kat Crawford. She’s with the non-profit Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings, which helps secure facilities bring technology into the classroom.
Crawford says Wyoming is way ahead of the curve.
Many secure juvenile justice facilities can’t even get the internet turned on. There’s a fear that kids might misuse it, even with firewalls and monitoring software in place. In fairness, many facilities are dealing with much more challenging populations — and situations — than the staff of the Wyoming school; violent offenders who are in large, urban locked-down facilities, a culture of punishment first that makes learning extremely difficult, and state budgets that have been squeezed year after year during the recession.
In some facilities, Crawford says kids are handed a stack of worksheets, some second hand textbooks and may get little or no instruction. Given they are a captive audience, she says, the missed opportunity to educate them is even greater.
“They have the ability to amass a huge number of credits while they are inside a correctional facility,” Crawford says. “They can do so much when they're there.”
At the Wyoming Girls’ School, every student who was eligible to graduate from high school in 2013, did graduate. On average, each girl made a year's worth of progress in math during her nine month stay and nearly three years of progress in reading.
It can all sound pretty good — at least from an adult’s point of view.
But from a teenager’s point of view, 17-year-old Jessie puts it this way: “I don't think anyone is happy to be here.” The rules are strict; the supervision constant.
“It's very stressful,” says Jessie, who has been at the school for six months. “You kind of feel like a science experiment. You're getting poked and prodded. It's really overwhelming because you have so many people telling you what you need to change.”
When asked about how school here compares with her school on the outside, she doesn't have an easy time answering.
“I can't really say because I never really went,” she says. “No one noticed that I was gone. I would ask to go to the bathroom and come back high and no one noticed the difference.”
Here, she says, she feels like her teachers know what's going on and care. “It's really comforting because it's like oh, other people notice me, I'm getting attention that I've been deprived of for so many years,” she says.
Superintendent Jones says it’s that kind of personal connection that matters most. No amount of technology can substitute for that.
But, she says, making sure kids in the system get a quality education on the inside improves their chances of succeeding on the outside.
“To affect change on the front end, rather than waiting until the far end, yeah it is a little costly, financially and resource wise,” Jones says. “But long term if it keeps kids out of prison or keeps kids out of the system or re-offending and all of the ripple effects financially, it's actually pretty cheap.”