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Every Student Succeeds Act From Our Research Center

Teaching—and Reaching—Students Behind Bars

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 06, 2018 12 min read
The Wyoming Girls School makes use of its remote location, at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains, both for security and curriculum. Students may learn about horseback riding as part of physical education or study farming in science classes.
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Sheridan, Wyo.

There are no guardhouses or concertina-topped fences around the Wyoming Girls School. There’s no need; the correctional facility nestles on a rural road off Interstate 90, almost dead-center of the state at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains, and no student has tried to run away in the last seven years.

But the school’s openness also highlights its deeper push to help its students consider themselves students again, and think of their educational future after prison. In the past five years, the Girls School has become part of a thin but spreading network of correctional education groups working to make their facilities truly a part of K-12 education.

It’s an uphill fight against a long history of notoriously poor education for the nearly 50,000 students in juvenile prisons. An Education Week Research Center analysis of federal civil rights data for 594 of the 633 juvenile justice-facility education programs operating in 2013-14 found their students receive an average of 26 hours a week of instruction—but 15 percent of schools average less than 20 hours a week, and, in some schools, instructional time may be as little as an hour or two.

Willow, a student at the Wyoming Girls School, was able to graduate from high school at the correctional facility and has started taking college classes.

The same data show big differences in curriculum, too, according to a U.S. Department of Education analysis. Only 28 percent of justice facilities offered Algebra 2, versus 78 percent of all high schools, and 48 percent offered geometry, compared to 84 percent of regular high schools. All told, fewer than half of juvenile justice schools offer all the core courses students need to graduate, and more than 60 percent of the students who return to their communities drop out of school altogether.

“We have tens of thousands of children who are simply outside our [school] accountability mechanisms. … They simply disappear; they are invisible,” said Zoe Savitsky, the deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “We’re giving states millions and millions of dollars ostensibly to provide an equitable education with, in many cases, nothing to show for it.”

Students here do want something to show for their time.

In the “Looking Forward” classroom, a handful of teenagers talk about what they’ll do when they get out—out of the facility, to be sure, but often also out of their old schools and communities where they are unsure if they have a future.

Dominique, a 10th grader, has good grades and wants to start preparing for nursing school; she hopes to visit a teacher in her old district when she next gets cleared to visit home. Her 10th grade classmate Cat, in and out of the school since the summer after 8th grade, expects to leave in March, but her former school district may not accept the credits she earned here over the summer.

“It’s frustrating. It doesn’t seem like they are trying to help me,” she said of her former school.

Willow, with a high school equivalency diploma in hand and a scheduled release later this spring, doesn’t know where she’ll live or how she’ll get money for college, but she dreams of getting far, far out of town.

“I want to go to Syria and join this rescue group; they go and pull people out of the rubble after places get bombed,” she said, then paused. “I think you might have to have medical training to do that, so I’m not sure I’ll be able to join, but I would really love to do that.”

This kind of uncertainty—about credits, connections, or a meaningful path forward after prison—dogs the nearly 50,000 U.S. students who attend school behind bars. And it’s a concern here at the Girls School, which Education Week visited earlier this year to get a handle on education innovations for incarcerated students. At the school’s request, the last names of Dominique, Cat, Willow, and the other girls interviewed for the article are being withheld.

Education Benefits

A landmark 2014 study by the research group Rand Corp. found that adult inmates who participated in prison education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison once released, with some evidence of similar benefits for younger inmates. Each dollar spent on education programs returned on average $5 in savings from lower recidivism in the first three years after prisoners were released.

But Rand also found that, in the aftermath of the 2008 economic downturn, 20 states cut their corrections education budgets, staff, and course offerings. In California, Florida, and Texas, large states that account for much of the nation’s school-age prison population, the cuts averaged 20 percent.

Students practice handshake techniques as they learn about applying for jobs during an independent-living course at the school.

“Here is your challenge as a teacher,” Savitsky said. “Come up with a lesson plan that requires minimal materials. Ask students to use nothing sharper than a crayon. Students cannot take any work home, and have no access to outside resources like the internet. By the way, a third or more of your students will have special education needs, and all of your students have experienced trauma. OK, go!”

The challenge is intensified by overlap in just who is in charge of providing education. Only three states require state or district education agencies to take sole responsibility for providing education in juvenile detention facilities, according to the most recent study, in 2015, by the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the federal office of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention. In 41 states, education and corrections agencies and private providers share responsibility to teach young people behind bars, and only 30 states required all corrections schools to be accredited by a nationally recognized group.

Map: Time Spent in Class at U.S. Correctional Schools

On average, students in juvenile justice schools get roughly as much instructional time as their district peers. But 15 percent of those schools—many of them in Florida—average less than 20 hours of instruction a week, finds an Education Week Research Center analysis of federal civil rights data. Dig deeper into instructional time in your state’s correctional facilities with our interactive map.

Expand Map

Note: To make this map, the Education Week Research Center analyzed data from the 2013-14 federal Civil Rights Data Collection. The analysis includes 594 of the 633 juvenile justice facilities documented in that year. Schools were removed if their data were considered unreliable, for example, because they listed more instructional hours than are possible in a week. In addition, 146 schools were included in the analysis but not shown in the map, because they did not have clear location data.

Source: Education Week Research Center analysis of Office for Civil Rights Data, 2018.
Data and Visualization: Alex Harwin and Sarah Sparks

The need for more training support was one reason the school joined the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings‘s five-year-old consortium of correctional education agencies in 14 states. The group provides formal teacher professional development—yearlong fellowships, summer ed-tech boot camps, and special education support, among other services—in a field in which instructors often have to teach multiple subjects and don’t get nearly the same ongoing training as their peers in regular districts. It also studies best practices in prison education—a somewhat sparse research field—and gives the leaders of these agencies a way to test and share ideas.

“It has opened a whole new world for me, because I have to teach all of the science courses and I haven’t had the room or resources to do what I’d like to do with them before now,” said Veronica Hagemann, a science teacher at the Girls School. The group helped the school improve security for an initiative to give all students internet-accessible tablet computers, and helped Hagemann identify apps that would let her students conduct science experiments—such as dissection or chemical experiments—that they wouldn’t otherwise be permitted to do.

“It’s made it more hands on,” Hagemann said.

A student's locker is decorated with sobriety tokens, a reminder of the trauma and challenges some of the students are working to overcome during their stay.

Students here take homeroom and three academic courses each morning, followed by lunch, then independent living and counseling sessions in the afternoon and early evening. They have physical education classes both in the morning and afternoon, from hockey and weightlifting to cross-country skiing and horseback riding.

Juvenile Justice Under ESSA

The Every Student Succeeds Act in some ways changes the school district equation when it comes to students in juvenile justice facilities.

Under the new law, states that accept federal Title I money for disadvantaged students must:

  • Ensure that students in corrections schools can take credit-bearing courses;
  • Give those students the opportunity to earn a traditional high school diploma, not just a GED; and
  • Create processes to ensure the credits students earn in juvenile justice facilities can be transferred when they return to district schools.

Also, districts now must track the graduation rates of their students who enter juvenile justice facilities.

That’s likely to be an uphill road in many states. Fewer than 1 in 3 states use the same accountability system for education systems in juvenile justice facilities as they do for traditional public schools, according to a 2018 survey by the American Youth Policy Forum of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The survey also found that little more than half of states issue school report cards or use other reporting mechanism for corrections schools.

“We’ve found when girls are lethargic, it’s not helpful for their depression or brain development,” said Cori Thompson, the school’s registrar.

Classes at the Girls School at first look like community college courses, with small clusters of six to eight students with each teacher. In English class, teacher Tracey Muso leads a discussion to plan an essay on how students would frame a conversation between their older and younger selves. Next door in math, instructor Jenny Mutch looks over two students’ algebra homework while another worked on an online geometry course.

In technology class, teacher Michelle Neilsen walks three girls through a unit on internet analytics, part of a Google certification program, while Bailey and Willow, who each graduated and started college courses this spring, debate popular privacy concerns about apps that track users.

Neilsen, who began her teaching career at the Girls School, worked in regular district schools for 20 years, and then returned, said teaching the girls is just a more crystallized version of what every teacher must do: “Finding a way to blend what I need to teach them and what they get excited about.”

“Willow is really driven about songwriting,” she said. “Bailey loves to talk about her coffee shop. I can reach her about behavior issues by talking as customer to business owner rather than teacher to student. I think for new teachers coming into the profession, if they could be given an opportunity to work in a place like this before they went to public school, they would get a really fast introduction to developing relationships with kids.”

Changing Population

Nationwide, the number of young people in residential corrections facilities has been nearly halved in the last decade, from roughly 93,000 in 2006 to 48,000 in 2015, the most recent year of U.S. Justice Department data show. The changing demographics have given corrections educators some momentum to innovate, but it can also change and intensify the needs of the children who remain.

For example, as overall arrest rates have fallen, boys’ rates have fallen faster than girls. Girls now make up a larger proportion of students behind bars than they did a decade ago—more than 30 percent. Yet many justice facilities—particularly smaller sites—struggle to provide for them. A study released last month by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that in Florida—which has among the nation’s largest populations of young people in prison—girls in gender-segregated housing in adult prisons were more likely to be in mental-health units with little or no access to education facilities.

Student artwork hangs in a hallway at the Wyoming Girls School in Sheridan, Wyo. The school is part of a network of juvenile justice schools working to improve education in youth correctional facilities.

Beyond basic facility needs, the Girls School educators argued their students need tailored mental-health supports. All 35 girls living at the facility in late January were judged delinquents in juvenile court.

“To get here they have to have [committed] a felony-level offense, but you see a lot more self-directed [offenses]; suicidality, self-harm, depression, promiscuity, drugs,” than crimes directed at others, said Christine Jones, the superintendent of the school.

That’s not uncommon nationwide, where as of 2015, girls were nearly twice as likely as boys to be committed for technical or status offenses, such as truancy or running away from home.

Willow, who turned 18 two months ago, sees it differently. She attended—and cut class—in five different regular, alternative, and online high schools in her freshman year before dropping out, running away, and spending several years bouncing among relatives in Wyoming and Idaho. She ended up at the Girls School when she returned to the state, with only 3½ high school credits to her name.

“Each of them, I went for maybe a month or two and they ended up not wanting me anymore,” she said of her prior schools. “I would go to my other schools and instead of encouraging me and saying, ‘Hey, you can do this, they would pull me out and say, like, there’s no way you are ever going to pass this class. And so I’d be like, OK, I guess not.’ ”

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

That’s Willow on paper. In person she’s slight and soft-spoken, her dyed-black hair growing out brown. She’s known on campus as a songwriter who teaches other girls to play guitar and played at a recent graduation ceremony. She finished her high school equivalency coursework in a few months, passed the ACT college entrance exam with a respectable 23, and has started taking college courses online.

“The only teachers I’ve ever developed relationships with are here,” she said. “I was always that kid getting called to the office and asked, ‘why didn’t you show up? Why are your grades so bad? Blah, blah, blah.’ And I’d try to explain, I’m having problems, ... I’m miserable every day I come to school. Here, if I told a teacher I was miserable, they would find a way to put me in another class, not just tell me to get over it.”

In the last five years, with help from the national professional development network, the school has trained all its teachers and staff on trauma-informed care and project-based and blended learning.

Trauma-informed care affects how teachers deal with both behavior issues and curricular approaches. In an English class earlier this semester, a story about a historic Wild West gunfight mentioned a woman’s rape in passing; in a school where a majority of students have been abused or assaulted at some point, the section triggered bad memories, and a good class discussion, said Dixie Cooper, Girls School principal. “There are some books usually presented at the high school that we would have read only with a therapist,” she said.

Melissa Johns, a history and horsemanship teacher at Wyoming Girls School and a former student herself, said she wishes teachers in districts and correctional facilities could communicate more about these students beyond their transcripts and discipline files.

“Boy, it would be nice to know these girls’ strengths,” Johns said. “We always hear the bad things, how rotten they were in class, but sometimes it would be really helpful to know what these students’ strengths are; often I just kind of stumble onto them.”

Dominique’s sharp questions and dedication to nursing. Bailey’s enthusiasm for coffee roasting. Willow’s songwriting heart and deep, matter-of-fact drive to pull people out of the rubble of their lives and into something better.

“These girls surprise me all the time.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2018 edition of Education Week as Teaching and Reaching Students Behind Bars


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