Special Report
Special Education

The Tough, Often Lonely Job of Teaching Incarcerated Students

By Denisa R. Superville — March 06, 2018 6 min read

Incarcerated youths are more likely to need special education services, have gaps in their schooling, and require extra academic support than their peers attending schools in the community.

But schools inside juvenile justice facilities struggle mightily to get teachers who have the specialized skills necessary to deliver a meaningful education to some of society’s most at-risk students.

Finding and holding onto teachers who can teach students of different ages and proficiency levels, manage classrooms while focusing on students’ academic, social-emotional, and behavioral needs, and work in a restricted environment are challenges that bedevil the field of educating incarcerated youths.

“It’s not a slam dunk by any means to get great teachers. Sometimes we are just lucky,” said Brad Monks, the principal of Slate Canyon School in Provo, Utah, about 50 miles from Salt Lake City. The school is housed inside a detention facility for youths between the ages of 12 and 19, who have already been sentenced or who are still waiting to be adjudicated. “We do sometimes get into a head-to-head battle with one of the traditional schools,” he said of competing for teachers. “We’ve won a couple, and we’ve lost a few.”

For many teachers entering the profession, educating incarcerated youth is not something they consider.

Other hurdles to recruiting include: overcoming the negative image about what it’s like to work in a secure facility; the correctional centers’ often remote locations; and the dearth of relevant professional development or on-the-job supports.

Pay can also be a problem in attracting teaching candidates—although in some rural areas the salary can be slightly higher than what teachers make in regular schools, depending on the agency that’s running the facility.

“While there are some excellent models out there ... there’s still, unfortunately, a lot of youth who go into facilities and come out saying that their education was nothing more than glorified babysitting,” said Kate Burdick, a staff attorney at the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center. “Having qualified teachers is a huge part of improving that, but also recognizing that teachers need to be certified and trained not just on their content areas but also on the unique needs of youths who are in a juvenile justice setting is critical.”

The center recently published a plan to improve education behind bars, which calls for students to be taught by qualified teachers who are permanently assigned to the facilities, and for students in online courses to have access to “live,” certified instructors.

For example, Melanie Bliss, a social studies teacher at Slate Canyon School, has plugged into professional development opportunities at the Provo school district—Slate Canyon teachers are Provo district employees—that are relevant to her. She wants to be able to use tablets in her classes so students at different levels can work at their own pace or she can work with them individually.

“No one here is just passing out worksheets or doing fluff education,” she said. “We are taking this really seriously.”

The Juvenile Law Center’s plan echoes December 2014 guidance by the Obama administration, which says agencies in charge of educating incarcerated youths should have qualified teaching staff, provide professional development for teachers, and use teacher-evaluation systems with the same rigor and standards as those used in regular schools, while also taking into account the unique aspects of their jobs. But in the three years since the guidance, progress has varied, said Burdick and other advocates. Part of the reason there’s been an inconsistent response is that the agencies in charge of educating incarcerated students vary from state to state.

Some States Tackle Reform

Some states had already recognized the deficiency and were changing how they support teachers in juvenile justice settings. Some corrections facilities in Oregon partnered with community colleges to provide certified instructors for career and technical education courses, freeing up teachers who are certified in core courses to focus on those subjects.

Massachusetts has made improving teaching inside juvenile facilities a priority since 2003, following a 2001 report that criticized its low teacher-retention rate, low pay and uneven professional development, among other things. Juvenile justice teachers in the state now have a suite of professional development opportunities that closely mirrors those in traditional public schools, in addition to support and training that recognizes their unique setting.

After doubling down on staff supports, the teacher-retention rate now hovers around 80 percent, said Woody Clift, the director of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services Education Initiative.

But who makes the best kind of teacher for corrections facilities?

Randall Farmer, the administrator of the education program at the Lancaster County Youth Services Center in Lincoln, Neb., said while teachers should have content mastery and be certified in their subject areas, he looks for teachers who can connect with troubled youths.

The facility, which serves on average 31 youths a day, is for short-term stays for those who are awaiting a more permanent placement. The typical stay in 2017 was 23 days.

Believing Success is Possible

Farmer said he needs teachers who believe they can succeed with students in spite of the trouble that brought them into the facility. Sometimes the best hire might be someone who’s never worked in a juvenile justice setting.

“When you get someone into an interview you start asking them, ‘What do you think about that most difficult kid? What do you do when everything you’ve tried didn’t work? What do you think causes young people to behave this way?” he said. “Those types of questions will frame for you where their mindset is.”

With PD on topics such as trauma-informed care, adolescent brain development, social-emotional learning, and coaching and mentoring from seasoned colleagues, teachers without a background in juvenile justice or social work can thrive, he said.

Teachers often need help with creating engaging lessons and teaching multiple subjects during a class period, said David Domenici, the executive director of the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings, which works with juvenile justice facilities across the country. Ensuring that the school principal and facility director agree on expectations for students and working conditions can also help teachers focus on teaching, Domenici said.

Farmer agrees, noting that more important than training is for teachers to have peers to learn from.

“If you can’t create that kind of environment that’s positive and where people can share with each other—then these places eat people alive,” he said.

Lynette N. Tannis, an education consultant and author of a 2014 book on educating incarcerated youth, believes there will always be mission-oriented educators who gravitate toward working with at-risk students, but teacher-training programs have to do more to prepare them.

Most programs don’t delve into strategies for incarcerated students and may only broadly address teaching at-risk students, she said. But that may be changing, at least on a small scale: Georgetown University has launched a certificate program for educating youth in custody.

Tannis teaches a six-week graduate workshop at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The workshop introduces her class to students in juvenile justice facilities: who they are, the school-to-prison pipeline, and some successful teaching strategies. Tannis’ students must observe classes in a juvenile justice facility.

“We have to make sure that the children who are in confined settings receive a high-quality education,” she said. “In the ‘free world’ we’re having the traditional [versus] charter school debate, but we’re not having conversations about the children we don’t see.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2018 edition of Education Week as A Tough, Often Lonely Road for Corrections Educators


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