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How to improve education for juvenile offenders

Adriene Hill Feb 25, 2015

On any given day, 60,000 kids are in secure juvenile justice facilities around the country. Thousands more pass through the system each year. Many of these kids are already failing in school — or are far behind when they come into the system — and many end up in even worse shape academically when they leave.  

Late last year, the Department of Education and Department of Justice issued guidance urging states to make education a top priority for kids who are locked up. David Domenici directs the non-profit Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings. He spoke to Marketplace’s senior education and technology reporter, Adriene Hill. 

Adriene Hill: Why is the federal government making education in juvenile facilities a priority now?

David DominiciA lot of people in the country are starting to question our criminal justice system, why are so many people locked up … and without giving them some chance to be successful when they return, isn’t that sort of morally wrong, and isn’t just economically stupid? The juvenile justice system is a part of that awakening.

AH: What kinds of changes are we talking about?

DD: Most important, the federal government wants kids who are locked up to have the same sort of educational opportunities that their non-incarcerated peers do.

President Obama has made it really clear through his My Brother’s Keeper initiative and otherwise he and the federal government care about kids of color, and poor kids of all races, and we can’t forget about them and throw them away. An overwhelming disproportionate number of kids of color are locked up.

AH: Why are so many facilities doing a poor job when it comes to education?

DD: In about half the facilities, the agency itself runs its own education program, and in some cases that works well. But in many cases they are large human services bureaucracies, they don’t have systems in place the educational reform movement has shown are critical to making schools work, so there are no standards for what high-performing schools look like.

Many teachers under those systems aren’t held accountable to the same teacher evaluation standards that the states have put out, same with the principals. The system is an amorphous blob inside of a youth service agency or corrections agency.

The other half are run by local school districts … and in some places, like Utah, that works great because the school districts really care, and the state office of education is really on them, so it’s a great team. But in other cases it doesn’t work, because you’re running this big school district … it’s just nearly impossible for you to prioritize what goes on in those little schools. So who ends up there mostly? Your worst teachers.

AH: What would it cost to improve education in secure facilities?

DD: Money is really important, but it’s not necessarily the key issue. The way we hold ourselves accountable so we can deliver these kids the education they need, that doesn’t necessarily require more money, it requires a radical change in philosophy. You have to approach this saying, ‘I believe this 16-year-old deserves a great education, the same education my teenager gets or the neighbor’s teenager gets.’ That’s about everybody walking into the building, putting everything aside, and saying, ‘My No. 1 job is to help this kid get a really terrific education.’ That dollar investment produces many-fold times its cost when that kid goes out and gets his high school diploma.

AH: How do you balance educational improvements with safety and security?

DD: It is a totally artificial construct to say, ‘We can either give kids the high-quality, high-engagement individualized education, or keep places safe and secure.’ It’s a totally false dynamic.

The safest, most secure facilities in the country are the ones that have thoughtful, pro-social disciplinary practices that are built around positive youth development and not built around punitive discipline practices, that almost inevitably lead you to break the law around special education law.

What is not a technology solution is to take young people who are already behind and stick them at a computer and tell them to use a very non-robust online curriculum for six hours a day, where they … don’t learn anything. Technology can be an incredible lever that supports the transformation of education in youth facilities. It isn’t the answer alone.


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