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If schools in juvenile-justice facilities are a young person’s last chance to get back on track, our latest research shows that these institutions are failing. Students in juvenile-justice facilities often don’t have access to even the most basic classes, and Native American youth in these settings are more disadvantaged than others.
The public wouldn’t even know about these disparities if the two most recent Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) surveys hadn’t included questions about the quality of education in juvenile-justice facilities. These are schools that serve youth who have been arrested or adjudicated and placed in secure or residential care by law enforcement or a court.
Bellwether Education Partners recently conducted an analysis, with support from the National Indian Education Association, that looked at race-based disparities and students’ overall access to math and science courses, “credit recovery” and dual enrollment programs, and other hallmarks of a high-quality education.
What we found is bleak: Many juvenile-justice schools do not even offer the courses that a student needs to complete his or her freshman year of high school, and Native American youth are among the most poorly served in these facilities.
Algebra 1 is a key course in a high school student’s academic progression because it is not only required for graduation but also closely associated with future academic success. Yet many juvenile-justice schools don’t offer this essential course at all. Despite the course’s critical importance, students in juvenile-justice facilities are 25 percentage points less likely to have access to Algebra 1 than their peers in traditional schools.
And within juvenile-justice schools, Native American students are much less likely to have access to Algebra 1 than their peers. Only 63 percent of Native students — compared to 79 percent of white, 83 percent of Hispanic and 78 percent of black students — have access to Algebra 1. In fact, Native students in juvenile-justice facilities have the lowest access to every math course on which the CRDC collects data. (The data does not provide enough information to identify why there are such large disparities in access for Native students.)
This pattern continues across the sciences. Completing a chemistry course is typically required to graduate from high school, but very few juvenile-justice schools offer the course. (This could be because of a lack of science facilities or qualified educators, or because secure facilities prohibit the use of lab equipment.) While incarcerated, only 8 percent of Native students have access to chemistry, compared to 25 percent of white, 18 percent of Hispanic and 22 percent of black students. And Native youth have the lowest access of any student group to other rigorous science courses like biology and physics.
These statistics are particularly shameful because Native youth are already routinely left out of the national education conversation. High poverty rates and inadequate schools lead to achievement levels among the lowest in the country: a mere 14 percent of Native students are proficient in eighth-grade math, and only 20 percent are proficient in eighth-grade reading. Native students also have the lowest high school graduation rate of any demographic group.
While it is important to pursue policies that limit students’ interaction with the juvenile-justice system, states (which most often run these facilities) must do more to improve educational opportunities for students once they are adjudicated. The first step is to improve the quality and consistency of data to ensure that states are held accountable if they fail to provide adequate education — as they are doing now — and to understand the patterns and experiences of Native youth. Right now, we don’t even have enough information to accurately articulate a potentially solvable problem.
But improving data collection alone isn’t enough. States must also use the data to target resources where they are needed most, increase access to essential courses and ensure that students are enrolled in the appropriate classes. It may be a consequence of geography that so many Native youth are placed in facilities so ill-equipped to serve them, but states cannot permit ZIP codes to determine the caliber of education provided in juvenile-justice facilities.
Instead, states should increase communication and collaboration with local tribes to ensure programming in juvenile-justice facilities incorporates culturally relevant services to better meet Native students’ needs. Taken together, these steps can make a profound difference in the lives of our most chronically underserved students.
The poor quality of education in these institutions is an additional punishment, not a resource. Rather than offering a helping hand, juvenile-justice schools rob vulnerable young people, especially Native youth, of opportunities to advance. Juvenile-justice facilities are supposed to be rehabilitative, but many of them are likely making things worse.
This story about juvenile-justice schools and Native American youth was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Diana Cournoyer, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, is the executive director of the National Indian Education Association, where she has worked for over six years.