School Climate & Safety

Academy Engages Incarcerated Youths

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 09, 2010 7 min read
Marcus, left, and Demondre, right, are escorted to the Maya Angelou Academy inside the New Beginnings Youth Development Center, a lockup facility in Laurel, Md., for teenagers convicted of crimes in the District of Columbia.

It’s not easy to keep young people on task for learning in a youth prison, but David Domenici, the principal of the Maya Angelou Academy, a charter-like school here serving incarcerated juveniles, is trying to do it while at the same time creating a model program for improving educational services for young offenders.

Located at the New Beginnings Youth Development Center, a lockup facility housing young men convicted of crimes in the District of Columbia, Maya Angelou is one of a small number of schools run by charter school operators targeting incarcerated youths. As of late last month, the academy was educating 60 to 70 teenagers, ages 14 to 19, who were serving time for crimes ranging from unauthorized use of a vehicle, to armed robbery, to manslaughter. A few stay as little as five days; others may be incarcerated for a year.

Yet, in the short time they’re here, Mr. Domenici hopes to give each of them the best education possible and also likely the best education they’ve ever had.

“The good news,” he said, “is [here] you have teachers who like you and support you, and kids don’t make fun of you if you can’t read.”

In a pocket of the field that many agree has been largely ignored, Maya Angelou Academy so far seems to be succeeding in that mission, by most accounts.

“The school is designed to be an integral part of the overall program in a way that helps youths turn their lives around,” said Robert Schwartz, the executive director of the Juvenile Law Center, a Philadelphia-based child-advocacy group. Cramer Brooks, a court consultant tasked with evaluating the school, called it “one of the best programs in a confinement facility” she had ever seen.

The See Forever Foundation, a nonprofit organization that operates three charter schools in the District of Columbia, won the contract to provide education services to incarcerated youths more than three years ago from Washington’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services.

A ‘Transformation’

Mr. Domenici, 46, a lawyer and a son of former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., initially co-established the foundation with fellow lawyer James Forman Jr. in order to run a school for youths who had been arrested. The small program grew, though, into three charter schools serving a broad range of students.

Before the foundation turned its attention to youths at the lockup facility, those services were managed by the District of Columbia school system. The facility was known then as Oak Hill and was housed in decrepit buildings here in Laurel, 20 miles north of the nation’s capital. Problems at Oak Hill led to an ongoing consent decree from the District of Columbia Superior Court to improve services, including education, for Washington’s juvenile delinquents, said Barry Holman, the deputy director for the youth-rehabilitation department. The school was plagued with “major classroom disruptions and violence,” he said. “Our analysis was that the educational program was so dysfunctional that it could not be fixed without being completely replaced,” he said.

By this past summer, a court monitoring report said the school had undergone “a remarkable transformation.”

Nationwide, experts say top-notch educational services for incarcerated young people are a rarity. Mr. Domenici and other experts estimate that reform of juvenile-corrections education is a decade or more behind reform in regular public schools.

Because of varying incarceration periods in youth-delinquency facilities, it hasn’t been a priority to have long-term educational services, according to Laura Abrams, an associate professor of social welfare at the University of California, Los Angeles. Even in facilities where youths stay a year or more, schooling is typically of “poor quality,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Special Challenges

Such facilities also serve a volatile mix of difficult-to-teach students. By the time students get to Maya Angelou, for instance, each of them has on average accumulated only three high school credits. Most read at a 4th or 5th grade level. About half have been identified as having special needs.

The magnitude of the challenge was evident during a recent visit to the school. Before school had even started, two youths in a unit known as New Horizons had flown into a post-breakfast fistfight. (Students are required to move about the campus in supervised units of about 10 students.)

Demondre works on an art project during class at the academy, a charter-like school run by a nonprofit organization. He hopes to finish high school and study art in college after he is released.

The altercation prompted corrections officer Charles Everett to lecture everyone about how to act like “grown men,” and the unit entered school 15 minutes late. The students who had pummeled each other went to a mediation session, where they worked things out and shook hands, but they missed first-period art class.

By second period, the unit’s nine boys were in math class, and things were humming along.

To maintain order in such an environment and provide individualized teaching, the school has a generous budget, compared with regular public schools, just as it did when it was run by the District of Columbia school system. The budget provides nearly $30,000 per student each year—twice the amount that the See Forever Foundation spends at its charter schools, said Mr. Domenici.

Statistics show that, on average, students at Maya Angelou Academy are making progress, achieving the equivalent of 1.4 years in reading and 1.3 years in math each year on a standardized test.

Tackling Turnover

The school addresses the student-turnover challenge by dividing the curriculum, which is aligned with standards for the District of Columbia schools, into one-month units and awarding one-eighth of a credit for each unit.

And teachers here say they strive to offer engaging lessons and meet students where they are through individualized support and instruction. In recent lessons, students drew life-size contour drawings of themselves in art, watched a video about Islam in social studies, played “Anger Pictionary” in an anger-management class, and debated in English class whether physical power or mental power is better.

But because students must stay in their units all day, teenagers who can barely read are assigned to the same classes as those who might be on grade level.

“It’s tough. I’m not going to lie,” said Cheryl L. Chisnell, the math teacher, though she seems skilled at tailoring lessons to students’ needs. For the first 15 minutes of a recent class, before she taught the main lesson, she helped students complete worksheets in their own individualized binders to master basic math skills, such as adding fractions or multiplying single-digit numbers.

Ms. Chisnell said it’s hardest to reach the students on the high and low ends of the achievement spectrum. In the recent class, the highest-performing student worked independently with computer software to study geometry. Meanwhile, a struggling student on another computer worked at long division, with one-on-one help from a teaching assistant.

The student studying geometry was Marcus, a 17-year-old nicknamed “Obama” for his smarts and presence. He expects to leave incarceration next month, and educators here are preparing him to successfully enter 11th grade. (Like the other student in this story, he is being identified only by his first name.)

Marcus said a drug problem helped lead to his confinement.

Of his stay at New Beginnings, Marcus said, “They want you to figure out who you really are in life, not just in front of your friends.” In the program, Marcus said, he’s learned that who you “hang” with is important.

He loves math, he said, and wants to go to college and eventually work with computers.

Demondre works on an assignment during social studies class at Maya Angelou Academy, a charter-like school that serves young offenders.

Also expecting soon to re-enter the outside world is Demondre, 14, who said things went off track for him in middle school because he didn’t like to go to class. “Bad behavior” landed him in incarceration, he said.

Demondre said he has learned at a faster pace at Maya Angelou Academy than in the public schools he attended previously.The academy’s teachers “are there for you, if you want to work,” he said. He eventually wants to go to art school.

Mr. Everett, the corrections officer assigned to New Horizons, said the teachers should push students even harder and that the rehabilitation program ought to last longer. “If you and I had to go to a rehabilitation program after running amok for eight years, it wouldn’t be enough,” he said.

Mr. Holman, of the city’s youth-rehabilitation department, said, “For me, the big thing is not necessarily how long they are here, but transferring what they’ve learned here to a lower level of security.” He said about one in four youths who leave New Beginnings is readjudicated—arrested again and found guilty of a crime.

After youths leave New Beginnings, advocates from Maya Angelou give them support for 90 days. Of those who left the facility in the past year, 51 percent were regularly going to school or work 120 days after leaving incarceration, said Mr. Domenici. That figure may not seem high, but it has increased from 23 percent the first year the See Forever Foundation ran the school, he said.

Samantha Simpore, a behavioral-management specialist at Maya Angelou, knows what the youths are experiencing. She was incarcerated at the old Oak Hill facility and, after her release, attended one of the See Forever Foundation’s charter schools, graduating in 2000.

At Maya Angelou, she tells students about her own life and assures them that “there are people who transition through problems and can overcome them.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Academy Engages Incarcerated Youths

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