The San Diego Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility screams “adult prison.” Except, the place is full of kids.
They exercise in a courtyard surrounded by high fences and barbed wire. Probation officers, who double as security guards, keep close watch for signs of trouble.
In hallways, offenders are forbidden from making eye contact with adults. They must turn and face the wall when someone passes by. There are bright yellow signs on the walls instructing kids on how to take the “cover position” when ordered.
Nearly every door has a heavy lock on it, including the classrooms. But, behind these locked doors, the sense of powerlessness that pervades this secure facility — housing everyone from petty criminals to murderers — eases a little.
Students in a social sciences class discuss the inherent tension between freedom and security. Their teacher leads them through the differences between ethos, pathos and logos.
Even more unexpected: every kid in the class is reading from, and making notes on, a new laptop.
Since July 2013, San Diego County Office of Education has spent nearly $900,000 on computers, printers and software for its secure juvenile facilities. Soon every one of the 200 kids here will have access to a Chromebook in class. All the teachers are being trained to run a digital classroom and add tech to the curriculum.
But getting to this point took more than a big investment. It took a significant culture shift.
“At first, we were a little nervous. I’m not going to lie,” says Mindy McCartney, supervising probation officer, who is charged with keeping the youth here under control.
“Everybody thinks they are going to use [the laptop] as a Frisbee, or attack somebody, or they are going to tag it and break it,” she says. “And it simply hasn’t happened.”
There was also anxiety about turning on the internet, even though there were firewalls and monitoring systems in place.
“We hear ‘internet’ and ‘access’ and we automatically get very paranoid and think the worst-case scenarios,” McCartney says.
But, so far, McCartney says there have not been significant problems. Kids aren’t using laptops as weapons. They’re not sneaking messages to gang members on the outside. In fact, teachers say the technology has made their students here more engaged in what they’re learning. That’s exactly the type of progress experts say the juvenile justice system desperately needs to make.
Secure facilities across the country have failed for years to provide kids with even a basic education. Many of the hundreds of thousands of kids who pass through the system every year are failing in school or far behind when they come in, and a lot of them leave in even worse shape.
“Historically, it’s been abysmal,” says Peter Leone, a professor at the University of Maryland College of Education and a juvenile justice expert, referring to the quality of education on the inside.
Leone says one of the biggest problems is the focus in detention centers and locked-down facilities is on punishing kids — not educating them.
“I’ve been to places where a significant number of the youth had no education services at all,” he says, adding that many facilities he toured didn’t operate a full school day, and in some places he’s visited students did not get credit for the work they do because the facility isn’t accredited by the state.
“If we really want young adults to become responsible citizens, we can’t just hope and send them back to the communities with a firm handshake and a good luck. We have to send them back with some tools,” he says.
To that end, the Department of Education and Department of Justice recently issued guidance, making clear to states and school districts that incarcerated students have the right to a good education. Along with better teachers and more funding, the feds want to see more educational technology in juvenile justice facilities. Specifically, they want technology that supplements the curriculum, not technology that replaces personal connections with teachers.
In many ways, educational technology is perfectly suited to kids in custody. Students who have committed crimes are constantly being yanked in and out of class. They have court hearings and meetings with probation officers.
“Everybody thinks they are going to use [the laptop] as a Frisbee, or attack somebody, or they are going to tag it and break it. And it simply hasn’t happened.” -Mindy McCartney, supervising probation officer
“We do have a population that moves around a lot,” says teacher Yolanda Collier. She says when students have their own computers and some lessons are online, they don’t have to fall behind.
“If [a student] wasn’t here that day, I don’t have to stand in front of the class and play the video again,” she says. “She can sit at her seat and listen to the whole video and catch up on the material she missed while she was out of class.”
Digital learning tools can also help teachers overcome one of the toughest educational challenges in a juvenile facility: teaching a classroom full of students at all different grade levels, with different problems and needs. Computers can allow teachers to personalize lessons to meet kids where they are. Those who are more advanced can move ahead. Those who aren’t won’t get left behind.
Classroom tech also makes it easy for teachers to mix general lessons with more specific online work.
“We’re blended, so we have some direct instruction, some independent learning,” says teacher Sarah Haffey.
One young woman in Haffey’s class is enrolled in online community college classes. Another is a month away from finishing high school. A third, Jocelyn, whose full name has been withheld to protect her privacy, is way behind both of them.
“I came in here with a little bit of credits because I wasn’t going to school on the outs,” she said. “So in here, I’m really low on credits.”
Ninety-one percent of kids who come into San Diego’s facilities aren’t reading at grade level, and many are a semester or even a year behind in school. Right now, Jocelyn is taking government and algebra. She’s slowly catching up.
“It feels good,” she says. “I’m actually accomplishing something. In here, I’ve earned 40 or 50 credits. So for me, that’s a lot. I feel a sense of smartness, that I’m getting there.”
It’s too early to tell if San Diego’s education experiment will “get there,” and pay off for the students in the long run. If history is any guide, many of them will end up right back in the system.
But there is one way technology is already making things better, says teacher Jackie Smith. She says when you hand these troubled kids their own computers, “It shows we value them and respect them.”
And that sends students a message: their futures are worth investing in, and they need to invest, too.