April 21, 2011 by John Kelly
After a long, frustrating wait for action on any juvenile justice-related legislation, the pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – now known as No Child Left Behind – offers advocates a chance to improve the plight of youth who are incarcerated.
The education act sets standards for schooling in juvenile facilities, which can be a key to improving a youth’s chances for staying out of such institutions in the future.
“This is a huge piece of the day running 24-7 facilities,” said Ed Dolan, deputy commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services. Having a better school day can “stabilize things for so many other units.”
President Barack Obama’s blueprint for ESEA reauthorization mentions incarcerated juveniles in just one paragraph on delinquent and neglected youth, and only to say the administration will ask the states to reserve certain funding for them.
“Our proposal will continue and strengthen formula grants to states to improve educational services for students in state-operated institutions and community day programs for neglected or delinquent children and youths,” the blueprints states. “To better direct funds to support students in locally-operated institutions, our proposal will ask districts to reserve funds received under [Title I] to support programs conducted by locally-operated institutions”
Although schooling for juveniles in detention has been a part of ESEA since the mid-1990s, it only received funding after No Child Left Behind passed in 2002 and has been far from a priority.
“The original No Child Left Behind didn’t align with juvenile justice,” said Christine Kenney, director of educational services for the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services. “There’s such a transient nature in this population, and [NCLB] doesn’t account for that at all.”
Still, its appropriation for incarcerated youth has risen from $42 million in 2002 to $50 million lately. The money goes to states, which are required to disperse some of the money to facilities holding juveniles and some of it to school districts. In turn, agencies and school districts are required to meet the educational needs of delinquent youth, assist in their transition back to school districts and evaluate academic progress by juveniles.
“I believe, based on national interaction, that absolutely NCLB has raised the bar” in terms of the quality of education in juvenile facilities and the focus placed on it, said Thomas Blomberg, dean of the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida State University. “I do feel like there is a growing recognition of the value of education with this population. And that they can be educated, they can turn it around.”
Education provided in juvenile facilities has generally been viewed as being abysmal. But figures from the U.S. Department of Education suggest that a significant number of juveniles do make academic strides. The department gathered pre- and post-test data on nearly 20,000 juveniles who had been incarcerated for 90 days or more and took reading or math classes in juvenile facilities. For both subjects, 70 percent of the students gained at least one grade level while incarcerated.
Such academic gains are critical, as is connecting juveniles back to their school districts, according to research by Blomberg and his colleagues. In two Florida State studies – both based on 4,147 juveniles from 115 different juvenile facilities – “We found that those youths that experienced academic achievement disproportionately returned to school,” he said. And if “they returned to school, the chances of re-arrest dropped precipitously.”
Florida’s educational services stepped up when the state entered into a consent decree in 1987, Blomberg said, the result of a class-action lawsuit, known as the Bobby M case. Bobby M forced a state overhaul of juvenile justice services, including funding to create a Juvenile Justice Educational Enhancement Program (JJEEP).
State funds were set aside to attract qualified teachers to jobs at juvenile facilities.
Before the lawsuit, he said, “teachers ended up in juvenile justice [because they] couldn’t make it in public schools.”
In some instances it was worse than that, he said. “We found some private providers who were using bus drivers to teach math.”
Because funding for JJEEP is slated for elimination in next year’s budget, Blomberg said, “I fully expect Florida to slip.”
Massachusetts is considered by some to be the standard bearer in providing meaningful educational opportunities for incarcerated youths. It wasn’t always so.
Ten years ago, educational services at the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services were “not in great shape,” said Kenney, the DYS education director. There was no infrastructure to track progress and connect youth with school districts.
“The education was just of a really poor quality,” she said. “We were aware of other states being sued and definitely said, ‘we don’t want to be that.’ ”
Thirty percent of DYS teaching slots were vacant on any given day, and annual turnover of teachers was 70 percent. Teachers at the facilities, who weren’t licensed, were being paid $15,000 less than licensed teachers.
“Nobody was licensed. We were not doing credit recovery, we were not putting out transcripts,” Kenney said. “In some ways, it was an opportunity that there was so little infrastructure. We got to do design elements we might not have if it was already more developed.”
Turning things around depended on improving the curriculum at DYS facilities so that school districts would allow juveniles back in upon release from incarceration and credit them for whatever they accomplished while they were with DYS.
“Turning it around meant figuring out how to get some buy-in from the state education department,” said Dolan. The Massachusetts Department of Education ultimately helped DYS to develop a curriculum
DYS also needed to improve the teaching quality. In 2003, it contracted with a state nonprofit called the Collaborative for Educational Services for statewide professional development. The collaborative conducts five to seven days of training per year for more than 200 DYS teachers.
Now there are no vacancies and turnover has been cut to 4 percent. In addition, 98.5 percent of DYS teachers are now certified.
“It makes a resounding difference in our teachers,” said Kenney. “We treat them more professionally, they’re more engaged, and then the students are more engaged.”
Comparative figures on academic achievement are hard to come by because nobody was collecting outcome information before 2001. Since that year, 877 committed youth have earned a GED while behind bars and 686 have obtained a high school diploma.
Kenney points to the statewide test for 10th graders as the best indicator of progress during the reforms at DYS. Between 2006 and 2008, an average of 77 percent of DYS youths eligible to take the test passed it. In 2010, 92 percent passed it. On the math exam, 70 percent passed, up from a 52 percent average from 2006-2008.
Developing a curriculum that had the blessing of the state education department helped DYS move wards back into the public school system upon release. But because most town in Massachusetts have autonomous schools, DYS also had to reach agreements with each individual school district on how juveniles would receive credit for the work done at DYS.
In some of the larger school districts, such as Boston, DYS assigns one of its own employees to high schools to help juveniles returning to campus.
“It’s a huge difference,” Dolan said. “Kids don’t get lost.”
The money to pay for school liaisons, he said, comes from the approximately $1 million that Massachusetts gets from Title I-D.
Juvenile education experts point to four areas that might be addressed by the next reform of ESEA.
Falling behind in high school credits is often a precursor to dropping out entirely, yet thousands of youths who leave facilities do so having earned no high school credits while incarcerated, according to U.S. Department of Education data.
Of 91,896 juveniles who were in a facility that received money from the department during 2007 and 2008:
- Half of the 13-to 21-year-olds did not earn any high school course credit.
- 11 percent of the 16- to 21-year-olds earned a GED or high school diploma.
- 25 percent participated in some elective job training.
- Only one of every five juveniles between six and 21 years of age enrolled in a local school district “while enrolled in, or shortly after leaving, a juvenile corrections or detention program.”
While it would be difficult for the federal government to mandate such credit acceptance, it could make funding conditional on accepting such credit.
“That absolutely needs to happen,” Blomberg said, pointing out that Florida already requires it.
School districts do have a legitimate argument over accepting the credits. They have no control over what gets taught within juvenile justice facilities.
“I would have felt embarrassed asking schools to take credits [for DYS work] 10 years ago,” concedes Kenney.
Credit acceptance could be a particularly difficult challenge for a state where counties rely on private providers to incarcerate juveniles before and after adjudication. In Pennsylvania, for example, public schools in Philadelphia and Allegheny County historically did not accept credits for work done in juvenile facilities. The problem was ultimately solved with a $1 million project, financed by foundations and federal funding, to develop a curriculum plan for the private providers that the schools deemed worthy of credit.
Education for youths in adult prisons
What schooling is offered juveniles held in adult prisons varies from state to state. The very nature of adult lock-up makes the education of juveniles in them hard to ensure.
“You have youth in general population, protective custody, administrative segregation and the mental health ward,” said Hildebrand Pelzer, author of the soon-to-be-released Unlocking Potential: Organizing a School Inside a Prison. The difficulty is “how to make certain that they’re all receiving education.”
Of the 31,125 in adult facilities with education department funding:
- 12 percent earned high school credits
- 14 percent earned a GED or high school diploma
- 17 percent enrolled in job training
- 3 percent obtained employment
The original No Child Left Behind Act “never addressed the needs of school-to-work and alternate pathways” said Massachusett’s Kenney. Many of the DYS youth would benefit more from job-specific education than English and math, she said, but the agency currently is not allowed to use federal education funds to that end.
“Statistically, the 17-year-old freshman may go back and finish school, but he needs to have success in other areas first,” Kenney said. “So we want to get them on a vocational path; it doesn’t mean we won’t offer them night school.”
Re-establish the conference
There is a lack of awareness about how to effectively educate youths in a correctional setting, Pelzer said.
“The implementation dollars are there, but what do with them?” he said of Title I-D. “Some institutions are getting hundreds of thousands of dollars but have no real plan to use it in a way that improves education.”
Between 2006 and 2008, the Department of Education funded Florida State to host the Juvenile Justice Education and No Child Left Behind Conference.
Even if restoring the conference was the only thing gained in a NCLB rewrite, it would be a win, Kenney said “We stole from Arizona and from Florida” in reforming our system, states she learned about at the conferences. “They should really make that an annual thing.”