Student Well-Being Photos

Learning in a Corrections Facility: A Day at Wyoming Girls School

By Education Week Photo Staff — March 06, 2018 1 min read

A stay in a corrections facility—often hours away from home, school, and everything that is familiar—is a shock to the system for any student. But studies show girls are significantly more likely than boys to enter the juvenile justice system with a history of all types of abuse and neglect—including a four-times-higher risk of sexual abuse. Juvenile facilities like the Wyoming Girls School are exploring ways to reengage students both academically and emotionally, and help them think of themselves as students again.

Education Week reporter Sarah D. Sparks and photographer Kristina Barker profiled the Wyoming Girls School as part of a special report on teaching vulnerable students.

Here’s a deeper look at their reporting–

The Wyoming Girls School, which serves court-ordered delinquent girls ages 12-21, works to avoid most visible signs of security. But it makes use of its rural location—set just beyond the center of town in Sheridan, Wyo., abutting the town’s small airport runway—both for security and pedagogy.
Dominique, grade 10, is seen here inside her dorm room at the Wyoming Girls School. As part of the school’s independent study requirements, modeled after Google’s “20 percent” approach to setting aside time for personal research and innovation, Dominique dug into various nursing degree programs available in the area. “At first I wanted to be a registered nurse, but then I decided to take it one step up: I want to be a psychiatric nurse practitioner or a family nurse practitioner. I want to go to college while I’m in high school,” Dominique said. Teachers say Dominique arrived angry, but also determined, and she has been intensely focused on charting a path to nursing in her time at the facility. “Dominique, she’s so eager, so excited that there are some opportunities out there for her,” said Rachael Ramsey, the teacher for Dominique’s favorite class, Independent Living. Dominique is scheduled to leave the school in May.
The Girls School was among the first juvenile facilities in the country to adopt 1-to-1 tablets and smart boards, and teachers and administrators say technology has dramatically changed what courses and academic projects the school can offer students. From left, 18-year-old students Willow and Bailey, technology and psychology teacher Michelle Nielsen, and student Addie, 18, take photos of each other to explore works of art on the Google Arts and Culture Face Match during technology class.
Sixteen-year-old Bridget, right, stretches out on an exercise ball during science class while beside her, classmate Nicole, 17, looks on. Students are encouraged to sit where they feel comfortable, and often times that may mean sitting on a desk, on the floor or on an exercise ball. “I had to get used to not being distracted by their coping skills,” recalled Alisa Tracy, an English and special education teacher. “One student learned best by sitting on the table by the window and staring out the window. Make her sit in a desk, she’s so anxious, can’t concentrate … but she could sit on the table with her notebook and just absorb everything; you ask her any random question and she would give completely thoughtful answers.”
Seventeen-year-old Atheina, left, and Luxxus, 16, practice memorizing a speech during class. Students are often seen with items like fidget spinners, modeling clay, or even moon sand and plush toys as pictured here. “When you are looking at trauma-informed care, a lot of what we strive to do is teach them how to regulate,” said Christine Jones, the superintendent of the school. “A lot of kids who have been traumatized are at a heightened baseline: Their heart rate is higher, you’ll see a lot of girls jiggling their feet all day long. If you look at the crisis cycle, they are halfway up all the time. The stress toys, calming music … it’s all connected to help them keep themselves calm and focused.”
Paraprofessional Kim Wenger is seen waiting in the hallway outside the restroom to keep watch on a student at the Wyoming Girls School. The school does not use handcuffs or ankle alarms, but students are escorted nearly everywhere around the school, including to and from the restroom.
A student’s locker is decorated with sobriety tokens, a reminder of the trauma and challenges some of the students at the Wyoming Girls School have faced and are working to overcome during their stay at the school.
Students and teachers play a game of hockey at the Whitney Rink, a sports center located near the Girls School in Sheridan, Wyo. The Wyoming Girls School rents ice time from the center so students are able to participate in a sport that couldn’t otherwise be done on campus.
Students in biology class transfer plants for planting this spring in the on-campus greenhouse garden. They’ve been tracking the winter seedlings for weeks, taking photos with their laptops to chart growth as part of science class. The hands-on activities give teachers the chance to teach through conversations with students as they work. During one class earlier this winter, teacher Nikki Collins wiped her pruning shears with alcohol between cuttings, and quietly asked Luxxus, 16, if she knew why. “To stop from spreading diseases from the plant’s blood?” Luxxus ventured. “Exactly like that, but do you know what the plant’s blood is called? Your homework tonight is to find out,” Collins says.
Student artwork hangs in a hallway at the Wyoming Girls School. The school reported that by the end of their terms at the school, students significantly improved on social-emotional inventories. For example, they were two or more times as likely to strongly agree that they felt safe, were comfortable asking questions in class, and “enjoy learning new things.”
School Principal Dixie Cooper, center, eats lunch with 15-year-old students Emily, sitting left, and Kaitlyn.
12 Wyoming Girls School students cooks cafeteria
Student Aeriel, 17, who is working towards her high school equivalency diploma, enjoys a light moment as she talks with family on the phone from a common area in a dorm at the Wyoming Girls School.
From left, students Shantell, 18, Lacey, 16, and Luxxus, 16, follow along during a guided tapping class, a form of guided mindfulness, at a dorm at the Wyoming Girls School. Afternoons and evenings are dedicated to various individual and joint counseling groups, occupational therapy, and other activities. Dixie Cooper, the principal at the Wyoming Girls School, notes: “We have about 25 percent with an active IEP–but almost any of the kids would qualify” for an individualized education plan, based on learning disabilities, emotional disturbances, or both. Only a student’s home school can start a new IEP, and while the Girls School can suggest additions to a student’s IEP, discussions about how a 16-year-old ended up reading at a 1st grade level can get diplomatically tricky.
From left, intern therapist Kelly Johnson, student Latavia, 16, youth service specialist Megan Peak, and students Emily, 15, and Marisa, 17, gather together for art therapy in a dorm.
Students are escorted to and from all buildings around campus. It can be a tough transition for some students leaving the tiny classes and structured schedule of the facility to return to their old—or a brand new—school. “I know places like the Girls School help kids take the blindfold off and say, ‘Here’s the path you are on; it doesn’t matter what happened before, you can move on,” said Bernie Ourth, district attendance officer for the Natrona County school district in Casper, Wyo., who helps returning students make the transition back to school. “But these kids maybe struggled academically before they got in trouble; they are carrying a lot of luggage. I think the human connection with these kids is critical. If they don’t have a connection with an adult in that [school] building, their odds of success are greatly limited.”
From Principal Dixie Cooper’s office window, visitors can see another snowstorm rolling in. “I think it’s important to pass along to the students, this is really only a part of who they are,” said Amy Yager, intake coordinator and clinician at the school. “If you made a list of all the bad things that happened to you, and a list of all your bad choices, would you want that to define you?”

A version of this article first appeared in the Full Frame blog.

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