School Climate & Safety

School Offers Model Lessons for D.C.'s Jailed Youths

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 04, 2010 8 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 youths 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 a teacher who likes you and supports you, and kids don’t make fun of you if you can’t read.”

In a pocket of the education 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. Likewise, Cramer Brooks, a court consultant tasked with evaluating the school found it to be “one of the best programs in a confinement facility” she had ever seen.

A ‘Transformation’

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.

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.

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

Before the foundation took over the job of educating youths at the lock up facility, those services were managed by the District of Columbia public school system. At that time, the facility was known as Oak Hill and was housed in decrepit buildings here in Laurel, 20 miles north of the nation’s capital. Problems at the former Oak Hill facility 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.”

By this past summer, a court monitoring report credited the school with having undergone “a remarkable transformation” from the old school.

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 the 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. And even in facilities where youths stay a year or longer, the education is typically of “poor quality,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Angelica Salazar, the juvenile-justice policy associate for the Children’s Defense Fund, a Washington-based advocacy group, concurred. “No one is paying attention until there is some kind of egregious violation,” she said.

Special Challenges

Such facilities also serve a volatile mix of often difficult-to-teach students. By the time students get to Maya Angelou Academy, 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 that day, 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, right, and Marcus work on an assignment during social studies class at the Maya Angelou school.

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 two 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 nine boys in New Horizons were in math class, and things were humming along smoothly.

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 per pupil amount that the See Forever Foundation spends at its charter schools, according to 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 challege 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.

Demondre plays cards with other members of his unit to pass the time. He says that “bad behavior” led to his incarceration at the New Beginnings Youth Development Center, where he’s been for five months.

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 to be skilled at tailoring lessons to students’ needs. For the first 15 minutes of a recent class, before she taught the main lesson of the day, 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.

Life Lessons

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 other students in this story, he is being identified only by his first name.)

Related report: Education Strategies for Reducing Juvenile Crime in the Nation’s Capital

Marcus said a drug problem contributed to his ending up in confinement. He said he skipped school for a time in high school.

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.” Marcus said he is weak in withstanding peer pressure, and said he’s learned in the program that who you “hang” with is important.

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

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.

Demondre’s goal is to eventually go to art school.

Mr. Everett, the corrections officer assigned to New Horizons, said the teachers should push students even harder than they do. He also said the rehabilitation program ought to last longer than it does. “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, their advocates from Maya Angelou give them steady 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, according to Mr. Domenici. That figure may not seem very 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 Academy, knows a bit about 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, one of her tasks is to welcome students and help them adjust. She tells them 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 School Offers Model Lessons for D.C.’s Jailed Youth

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