New Orleans

Can a nonprofit turn around a school in a juvenile detention facility?

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As CEEAS takes over the school in the New Orleans juvenile detention center, its teachers hope to engage students lagging in classroom basics.

NEW ORLEANS — As recently as a decade ago, the Youth Study Center would have been unlikely to attract an educational pioneer to their juvenile detention facility. The roughly 40 teenagers held in the flood-damaged center rarely made it to class because they were often on lockdown 23 hours a day. The staff had a reputation for incompetence. The building itself was plagued with bugs and mold.

But this summer, the Orleans Parish School Board signed over operations of the school to the national nonprofit Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings (CEEAS), which is known for its work tackling the academic deficits faced by juvenile delinquent students. CEEAS is run by David Domenici, best known for the innovations he implemented as founding principal of the Maya Angelou Academy, which serves delinquent juveniles from Washington, D.C.

Teachers at the Youth Study Center work with arrested juveniles being held pretrial, nearly all of whom are African-American males. Time spent at the facility varies wildly, from about two weeks to nearly two years.

The new contract is a key test for CEEAS, because many students in New Orleans are still suffering from the trauma of Hurricane Katrina and the schooling gaps that followed. The new relationship with CEEAS is also an indication of the tremendous turnaround made in recent years by the city of New Orleans, which operates the Youth Study Center, and the school board, which is in charge of education there.

Despite the small student body at the Youth Study Center, the stakes are high; whenever a rash of armed robberies or other serious crimes are tied to young people, advocates in New Orleans express concern that the perpetrators may be children who fell through the cracks after Katrina and, as a result, have unaddressed academic and psychological issues.

With 90 percent of New Orleans students now attending schools run by charters, New Orleanians have grown accustomed to hearing enthusiastic spiels from new school operators over the past 10 years. A handful of the new schools have succeeded; some have failed; others have made slow, incremental improvement.

Domenici is not naïve about the challenges: he first began working with the Youth Study Center about a year ago, when he and his staff were hired as contractors to help shape instruction there, as they do in dozens of juvenile facilities across the country. Ultimately, Domenici believes that CEEAS can oversee transformation at the school. “With a lot of work, it can become really spectacular,” he said.

While acting as Maya Angelou’s principal from 2007 to 2011, Domenici crafted short, thematic modules that not only met state curriculum requirements but also grabbed kids’ interest quickly — a necessity, since detained students may stay for only a short time. He also introduced Internet coding, poetry writing and leisure reading to the world of juvenile facilities. In place of the military-style, boot-camp discipline common to many facility schools, Domenici instituted student incentives and programs based on Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports, which focus on reinforcing good behavior rather than punishment. And finally, though many juvenile facilities focus almost solely on getting their students to pass high school equivalency tests, Domenici encouraged his students to become confident in their ability to learn and to earn the traditional class credits that they would need in order to return to high school upon release.

Schools like the Youth Study Center often fall short in serving students. Across the country, nearly 2,000 residential facilities house 60,000 youth who are either awaiting trial or who have been deemed delinquent by a judge and sent to a facility to serve out a sentence. Most are young men of color. A research compendium about juvenile corrections education from the UCLA Adolescent Health Partnership Project noted that abbreviated class time is endemic; a federal survey found that only one-third of youth confined in pretrial detention facilities received six or more hours of education a day.

Related: Pipeline to Prison: How the juvenile justice system fails special education students

In her detailed and widely cited analysis of juvenile detention education, Katherine Twomey from the University of Virginia School of Law found that students had grave deficits, were instructed by woefully unqualified and poorly trained teachers and received inadequate class time. She concluded: “These problems illustrate that the current system provides merely for containment of juvenile delinquents rather than the education to which they are constitutionally entitled.”

Juvenile delinquent education has also been marked by a profound deference to security staff at the expense of children’s education. Domenici is practical — he knows that the center’s security staff may feel the need to hold back a student from school for a few periods or even a day. But if it goes beyond that, his educators are tasked with working with correctional officials to get the kids back to school. Or, as he told his staff: “One of your jobs is to ensure that students have access to the education that they need and deserve, warranted under state and federal law.”

The national mandate for change

In late 2014, the federal departments of justice and education released a joint letter urging school officials to improve education in juvenile detention facilities.

“Providing high-quality correctional education that is comparable to offerings in traditional public schools is one of the most powerful — and cost-effective — levers we have to ensure that youth are successful once released and are able to avoid future contact with the justice system,” wrote Education Secretary Arne Duncan and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

At the time, only 47 percent of detained juveniles earned valid state high school credits, according to a report by My Brother’s Keeper, the White House task force designed to improve outcomes for boys and young men of color. Among those between the ages of 14 and 21, only 6.6 percent earned a high school equivalency degree or diploma, the report found.

Juveniles who enter detention typically lack proficiency in basic skills such as math and reading. Twomey noted research showing that the median age for detained juveniles was 15.5 years — which would typically put them in ninth or 10th grade — but their average reading level was equivalent to that of a fourth grader.

Up to 70 percent of detained youth have a learning disability and more than half have not completed eighth grade, according to a study by the national Youth Reentry Task Force, a group of 20 federal and state organizations that support young people leaving the juvenile justice system. The study also found that two-thirds of those who are sentenced to a juvenile facility don’t return to school once they get out and noted other research showing that a startling 60 percent of juvenile-justice-involved youth may also meet the criteria for at least three mental health disorders, limiting their ability to learn and to get along in a classroom.

This is no secret to Domenici, who started CEEAS after spending 15 years working with at-risk and court-involved adolescents. “The average kid we see has already been struggling, already has had attendance challenges and has been failed by and at the schools he attended,” he said. “We want to change that. We want school to be a place where they see themselves being successful.”

Related: Formerly incarcerated, with a learning disability, she’s now a college grad

The Youth Study Center has its own troubled history. In 2007, the city of New Orleans and the Orleans Parish School Board were sued for unconstitutional conditions of confinement and other violations; the case was brought by the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL), a nonprofit advocacy group working on behalf of at-risk youth and incarcerated juveniles. Beyond the facility’s over-reliance on lockdown, the lawsuit described how, when teens actually made it to a classroom, they were given busywork instead of instruction. “Plaintiffs … claim that all YSC youth receive the same education from a single teacher who is without access to prior education records,” the judge explained in an order issued as part of the case.

The two parties negotiated a settlement and consent decree, which lasted from 2010 to 2014, and allowed the city and school board to agree to changes without admission of guilt. Earlier this year, the city moved all detained youth to a brand-new 59,000-square-foot facility that was built with Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster money.

While under judicial oversight, conditions within the facility and its school drastically improved, with the help of Principal Tyrone Casby, who had previously overseen an alternative school and was known for his work with troubled youth. After Casby took a job at another school, the district turned to Domenici.

Most recently, due to a steep increase in the number of juveniles transferred to adult court, the school has struggled to educate two distinct groups of teenagers. The first is made up of students facing charges in juvenile court, who stay about two weeks before being released or transferred to a secure-care juvenile institution. A second group — those who will be tried in adult court, primarily on armed-robbery charges — may stay at the center for a year or more, until their trial is resolved or a plea deal is reached. However long they’re held, Domenici characterizes that time as crucial. “We may have them for 14 days or for 18 months. But we got ’em. This is our one shot.”

When CEEAS takes over the school this month, it will raise certain themes that hit close to home for detained youth, such as justice, segregation and power. Teachers will help short-term students brush up on basic skills such as reading and will conduct detailed individual assessments to determine what subjects they most need help with. Since a large number of the juveniles are special-ed students, the school will also ensure that students leave with updated and “meaningful” Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, which spell out learning disabilities and guide teachers on how to accommodate each student’s needs in the classroom, Domenici said. The staff will work with the longer-term students to update their records — on their school transfers, report cards and immunization — so that they can more seamlessly return to an outside classroom. Educationally, the goal is to engage the long-term students in school, to help them understand that they can achieve academically and to make sure that they amass high school credits.

Overall, Domenici wants to set a new standard for facilities that have been known primarily for keeping their students in an academic holding pattern. “Philosophically, I see a lack of oomph,” he said. Yet, he sees possibilities for staffs that engage their students. “We … have an opportunity to make this an incredible turning point for these kids.”

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