‘You can’t come in here and think these kids are bad. You’ve got to accept them; you’ve got to love them. And you can’t judge them. I’ve had rapists and murderers in my class— I don’t judge. It’s about how they behave in my class, not what they did on the outside.’
Outside the mammoth white steel-and-glass building on Chicago’s West Side, there’s nothing to suggest that a school resides anywhere inside its walls. Squad cars and the occasional paddy wagon sit curb side. The only yellow school bus that pulls up front disgorges county workers, not students. Lawyers toting accordion files packed with papers rush past the snaking line of people waiting to step through a metal detector and into the labyrinth of courtrooms and offices that make up the Cook County juvenile court complex.
But just up the stairway, to the left, is a small sign that reads: “Intake Center and School.” Visitors get buzzed through the gate at the front desk and two sets of locked doors before officially entering the Nancy B. Jefferson Alternative School, named for a prominent local social worker and civil rights activist. And, inevitably, they run into Julie Campoverde, who always seems to be striding through the halls and keeping tabs on the teachers-in-training she mentors at the school.
At the moment, the 46-year-old, who’s also known as “Mrs. C” or “Camp,” is checking on her kids. She asks after one student’s older brother, then squeezes the arm of a shy girl. She also reassures a 14-year-old boy who can barely read that, yes, she will keep her promise to help him write a letter to his cousin.
For much of the past 17 years, Campoverde has taught students who are in legal limbo at this school in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. Most of the 500 or so 10- to 17-year-olds in the center are awaiting their days in court for charges ranging from probation violation to murder. Approximately 70 percent of them are being detained for nonviolent offenses, such as drug possession.
Eyebrows shoot up whenever Campoverde tells people, including other teachers, where she works. Some folks spit out comments like, “Those kids are monsters.” But Campoverde can’t imagine working anywhere else. “I think my [life] experiences happened to me for a reason—to be able to do this job,” she says. “I think humans are born with a mission, and this is mine.”
Between classes, a 17-year-old kid clad in a navy blue sweat shirt and khaki pants stamped with the detention center’s initials stops Campoverde in the hall. She recently lent him a book of poetry, and he wants to share a poem he’s written—but in private. “This is sacred,” he explains. So, she leads him into a counselor’s office, where he recites “Unforgiven” in hushed tones.
“Unforgiven, believing the lies I tell myself,” he says, as Campoverde listens intently. “Unforgiven, livin’ life for somebody else.”
She does not take her eyes from his face. The boy is the most important thing to her at this moment. And he knows it.
A career in teaching was not something Campoverde sought early on. The Chicago- area native originally wanted to be a photographer, and she earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts at Arizona State University in 1977. But her father insisted on job security, so she got a second bachelor’s in education at ASU three years later. During that time, she tried out two jobs, disc jockey and then photographer, only to return to Chicago in 1980 and begin substitute teaching. She immediately found herself drawn to the neediest students, those with emotional and behavioral issues. By 1985, when she received a master’s in special education from Northeastern Illinois University, she’d landed a full- time job with Jefferson, where needy kids are the norm.
Campoverde considers her students resilient survivors who have suffered a number of abuses: everything from parental neglect to the poverty and violence that wrack many of their neighborhoods. She is a survivor of sorts herself. While she grew up in a safe, suburban community, emotional comfort at home was scarce. At age 9, she says, she was sexually abused by her paternal grandfather. (Four years later, he moved to Florida, and she never saw him again.) And her parents split up when she was 10. As a teenager, she developed an eating disorder, which she continues to struggle with today.
Having overcome such obstacles, Campoverde believes in the power of individual growth and change. Born into a Jewish family, she’s now a practicing Buddhist raising two biracial children in the multicultural city of Oak Park, which borders Chicago. (She is twice-divorced. Each husband—the first black, the second Hispanic—is the father of one of her children.) And Jefferson, with all its chaos and pathos, is a place where she feels comfortable and needed.
‘You’ve just got to have respect for these kids. You’ve got to connect with them. You’ve got to believe the kid is worth the effort. And to survive here, you have to know that to teach here is a mission, not a job. And Julie does.’
“I believe that every human, every individual, has the potential for enlightenment,” she says during a break between classes. “You can’t come in here and think these kids are bad. You’ve got to accept them; you’ve got to love them. And you can’t judge them. I’ve had rapists and murderers in my class— I don’t judge. It’s about how they behave in my class, not what they did on the outside.”
The outside, however, directly affects what goes on inside Jefferson. While the teaching staff of 42 is supposed to conduct classes on language arts, science, social studies, and math, many students have spotty attendance and academic records at best. Their emotional needs often demand top billing. Campoverde says she wears many hats—those of a social worker and a surrogate mom included. “A lot of what we’re doing is just getting kids to take responsibility for their behavior and themselves,” she explains.
Classroom distractions are familiar to most teachers, but they border on the Kafkaesque in this place. Some 6,000 juveniles passed through the school’s doors last year. Kids are incarcerated in the center anywhere from a few days to a few years, depending on their situations. Each day, 60 of the roughly 500 Jefferson students are absent because they’re in court, and many are yanked out of class to meet with a probation officer or a lawyer. Some students are sent back to class moments after being told they’re likely to spend decades behind bars. “After that, just how are you supposed to sit down and do fractions?” Campoverde asks. “The bottom line is, court takes precedence here. These kids aren’t thinking about school; it’s court and their fates.”
They’re also living away from home in Spartan residential units located on the floors above the school. At 9 p.m., the lights go out, and each student is locked into a seven-by-thirteen-foot cell equipped with a bed, a sink, and a stainless steel toilet. As the oldest and one of the largest secure juvenile detention facilities in the country, the Cook County center has suffered its share of slings and arrows. In 1999, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action suit against the county, charging it with gross mismanagement and failure to provide juveniles with safe and livable conditions. The suit is still pending, but several juvenile experts say the center is making headway on reforms outlined by various watchdog groups.
The school also has been criticized. Low test scores and concerns about an unfocused curriculum prompted the Chicago school district to put the school on academic probation in 1998. Today, Jefferson is in the process of revamping its curriculum and assessments with the help of outside consultants.
Though the school has a revolving-door population, Campoverde has clearly forged bonds with her students that extend beyond the classroom. Her eyes soften when she talks about a former student who was “like my son.” He arrived at Jefferson at age 14, then left at 17 with a life sentence for killing those who’d murdered his surrogate parents during a gang shooting. “He just touched my heart,” Campoverde says. “He was loyal. And he had this vulnerability that was a real dichotomy from the rest of him.”
Then there’s the boy who, during his year at Jefferson, refused to leave Campoverde’s side and continually asked her to be his mother. (His parents had died.) She describes the boy, who was mentally challenged, as a 10-year-old in a 16-year-old’s body. After he was sent to another juvenile facility, she wrote to him for more than a year and sent him clothes and money.
Officially, teachers aren’t supposed to know why a teenager has been sent to the detention center; intake and juvenile records are kept private. But dealing with the court system can be part of a teacher’s job. Campoverde has been subpoenaed half a dozen times to testify on a student’s behalf. Twice she’s been called for hearings to decide whether a student should be tried as a juvenile or as an adult. And she’s written letters to caseworkers, probation officers, and defense lawyers. “I feel like we still have a chance here to make a difference,” she explains. “These are still kids; they’re not adults. I’ve met maybe one or two ‘bad’ kids the entire 17 years I’ve been here.”
Frank Tobin knows a thing or two about what it takes to teach at Jefferson. He was on staff for 20 years before leaving to run a program that recruits people with unconventional backgrounds to become Chicago teachers. “She knows the importance of respect,” he says of Campoverde. “You’ve just got to have respect for these kids. You’ve got to connect with them. You’ve got to believe the kid is worth the effort. And to survive here, you have to know that to teach here is a mission, not a job. And Julie does.”
If court is the elephant in the living room at Jefferson, race is the hippopotamus. About 65 percent of the school’s students are black. And Campoverde—one of just a handful of white female teachers—addresses the subject with trademark directness. Daryl Thomas, a teacher-in-training whom Campoverde mentors, recalls a recent exchange in which one black student said he hated white people. Thomas, who is black, says: “Camp just went toe-to-toe with him, challenging him to talk about it and saying, ‘OK, if you don’t like me for me, fine, but don’t judge a whole group. You’ve got to treat people as individuals.’ She’s not afraid of the kids, that’s for sure.”
This afternoon, she’s taken over Thomas’ class for a spell. While leading a discussion about a black journalist’s encounters with discrimination, she encourages students to talk about their own experiences, standing by their desks as they speak. But she’s no marshmallow. When an argument starts between two boys, and one calls the other “nigger,” Campoverde writes him up, ignoring his pleas for leniency. She tells him: “No disrespect, period. We’re not about that in here. Sorry.”
Later, she discusses The Autobiography of Malcolm X with a group of 9th graders. Today’s subject is freedom.
“Can you be free while you’re in prison?” she asks the class. A chorus of nos streams forth. But Campoverde pushes them. “OK, what about this. Can you be out on the streets and not be free? If you’re addicted to drugs, are you really free?” A few students stop squirming in their seats. When Malcom X was in prison, she points out, he was a voracious reader, and he educated himself there. “So freedom is really in your mind,” she adds.
As detention center attendants arrive at the classroom door to return students to their living quarters, one kid lingers for a moment. He asks Campoverde if he can take the Malcolm X reading upstairs. She says yes. And smiles.