Making Progress with our Incarcerated Students

The L.A. County Office of Education- whose board I serve on- oversees the schools at the juvenile probation camps. Each time I visit one I am struck by a devastating contrast:  students just like these – from the same challenging neighborhoods- are thriving in high-performing charter schools in their home communities. The charter school kids got a break and are learning what it means to be on the path to success.  Statistics tell us that the incarcerated kids, on the other hand, will churn through the revolving door of the juvenile justice system and on into adult incarceration.  Not a path to success.

My visit last week to the Christa McAuliffe School at Challenger Memorial Youth Center in Lancaster, however, was unexpectedly inspiring.The teenage offenders at Challenger are among the most challenged in the county juvenile system: they read on average at a 3rd grade level, over 40% are classified as special needs, and an even larger percentage receive some type of psychotropic medication. Nevertheless, when the kids are in the camps there isn’t much to compete with school.  The opportunity is there to focus on learning, and show them what that path to success is all about.

Sadly, this has not been the case.  The school at Challenger is notorious for its shameful past failure to educate students, practices brought to light in a law suit filed last year by the ACLU and others. Now under the spotlight and under the gun to implement an education reform plan, Christa McAuliffe School appears to be turning around. A new principal with seasoned and inspired leadership is changing the culture, re-energizing teachers, and reframing learning.   On Wednesday we were  introduced to two promising new programs that could change kids’ lives.

Two things we know about recidivism for both youth and adult offenders: it decreases with education level and employment. “BuildingSkills: Construction Careers for the 21st Century” prepares students for construction-related trades- everything from carpentry to blueprint-reading.  It meets both criteria for reducing recidivism.   Students can earn both high school credits and a general construction industry certificate from OSHA, a leg-up toward an apprenticeship. According to the program’s developers, BuildingSkills participants in regular public high schools have a 95% graduation rate- nearly twice the graduation rate in inner city high schools.

For obvious reasons, we can’t expect comparable numbers for the kids at Challenger (at least not yet!), but the demonstration we saw explains a lot about the motivational impact of the program.The students who spoke to us were excited and proud of their work. They talked about careers in the future.  And they learned the practical value of math, reading, physics, etc. while developing their construction skills.

In another classroom, newly-arrived computers, tables and swivel chairs anticipated the launch of AdvancePath Academy. This web-based program helps kids complete the credits they need for high school graduation.  With students in residence at the camp for only three to nine months, completing specific coursework for full credit is a challenge. AdvancePath lets students focus on one subject at a time, until the coursework is completed, assessed and the credits recorded.  A huge step toward graduation- and the path to success.

What is behind the turn-around at Challenger? No secret- strong instructional leadership is driving progress.  At LACOE that leadership includes the new superintendent and his senior team, and their willingness to make the personnel changes that will bring results. I have hopes that not only these new programs, but the leadership to make them work, will be replicated throughout the schools charged with educating LA County’s incarcerated kids. It’s their best chance for a future free of the criminal justice system.


3 thoughts on “Making Progress with our Incarcerated Students

  1. Katie, there is nothing better you could be doing with your time and dedication. I believe that educating the so many disadvantaged kids who are going to be cut off from the productivity, advancement, and wealth of this counrty’s future is our biggest challenge.

    With regard to your observations, leadershiip of principals and superintentedents is undoubtely vital. How to get parents engaged may be the overwhelming challenge. One thought that I have had was to pay parents minimum wages to attend two weeks at school at night for their young childdren to engage them in the learning prcosess and connect them in partnership with the teachers so that the learning process was incorporated in the home and the teachers found partners in the home.

    You and I went to great schools. Our parents were great influences. We learned to love to learn that has sustained us through life. I am proud that you are deeply involved in engendering these values in the young people who will sustain our furture. Good for youi Kakie.


    • Thanks for your thoughts and insights about engaging the parents- it’s an interesting idea. Here in California there is some organized parent advocacy. There is a parents union that has so far made news but has had little success. There is also a family leaderhsip institute which is designed to teach parents how to advocate for their kids at school – how the system works, how to communicate successfully with teachers and principals, and finally how to organize. I like this latter approach because it empowers parents with knowledge and skills that they need to successfully advocate for change. Hopefully something will come of it all.

  2. Katie,
    Thanks for capturing so well what we all experienced last week at Challenger. The measure of success in public education must always include the progress of youth who need a second chance.

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