Author: Jerry Higgins, Communications Officer
The school year is well underway with challenges brought forth by the pandemic and in-person vs. remote learning.
Youth who enter the state juvenile justice system also are participating in classes that look similarly to any classroom outside of a Juvenile Justice facility. Coursework is challenging and follows the North Carolina standards, no matter the learning level of the juvenile. Highly qualified staff evaluate every youth for their level of knowledge and are available to provide personalized instruction.
In the 2019-20 school year, 19 students graduated from high school while residing in a state-operated youth development center or detention center. Overall, 267 students earned high school credits in Juvenile Justice facilities, as the state Department of Public Instruction recognizes Juvenile Justice as a local education agency.
“We have licensed teachers at all facilities, and they are expected to follow state and federal mandates, including the delivery of special education services,” said Director of Juvenile Education Services Adam Johnson. “Our teachers are trained to teach middle school, high school, high school equivalency, vocational training or post-secondary education. Our classrooms are comprised of multi-age and multi-ability students, so our teachers need to be skilled in differentiating their instruction to meet the wide range of students’ needs”
All students are assessed as to their grade and educational skill levels. Juvenile Justice also reaches out to the youth’s home county school for records, including any Individualized Education Program (IEP) that may be in place, designed to meet the student’s needs.
“JJ will meet with the parent and the Juvenile Justice educational compliance specialist and update the IEP to the new setting,” said Danielle Woolard, the education specialist for Pitt Juvenile Detention Center in Greenville. “Accommodations for the student will still be in place and we’ll always keep those. Seldom do we have to change the whole IEP. If necessary, we can reach out to the school and find out what we have to look out for.”
Johnson said, “The majority of kids are coming to us under-credited and significantly behind in literacy and math skills. Most are two or more grade levels below where they should be. Our teachers are tasked to support students in meeting grade level standards. We provide opportunities for students to build skills that are essential for their success beyond the walls of our facilities.”
Working on success skills can be difficult in a youth development center or juvenile detention center. There aren’t separate classrooms set up for different grades, nor are there separate teachers for each grade. While the overall numbers to be taught in a facility are relatively small, the challenge of teaching to the various learning levels is large.
“They do not require less than a student in a ‘real’ school,” said Woolard. “I want everyone to receive the same quality of education they would get outside of this facility. It’s sad that this is where they are. I do the best I can to change their mindset.
“They are not juveniles in my classroom. They are students. School just happens to be in a detention center. It’s no different here than any other school I’ve taught in 15 years of education. This is their little pit stop and then they’ll move on from here. I do not treat them any differently.”
Educational success can be dependent on the length of time the juvenile spends in a facility. The youth in a juvenile detention center tend to spend less time in a facility than those assigned to a youth development center. Most students who do graduate or receive their high school equivalency are YDC juveniles, but that’s not always the case.
This past school year, a juvenile who spent four years at Pitt JDC received his high school equivalency with the help of a partnership with Pitt Community College. The pandemic prevented the community college from stepping foot in the facility, which meant they had to send work packets to the facility for the student. Woolard said this juvenile spent enough time at the facility to go through the entire program and graduate.
“Kids come here, and they have nothing but time on their hands,” she said. “Most of the time they’re not here long enough to go through a GED program. Some of these kids haven’t been in school for a while. I reached out to Pitt Community College to see if there was a way to work with him. They do it for adults in prison, why not for juveniles?
“They took a chance on us. We were building a plane as we were flying. We learned a lot through this young man and Pitt was awesome. I was his GED teacher doing school one-on-one. Staff helped him when he needed it. It was a long road, but he passed every test the first time. I don’t know what will happen when he leaves here, but now he has something that he has earned. No one can take that from him. I know he is interested in an associate degree and has accomplished the first step.”
Many juveniles had a poor educational experience growing up and it’s up to the facility educators to eliminate the stigma that school is bad.
“You want to give them confidence they can do this,” said Dr. Eric Barnes of Lenoir YDC, the 2021 Juvenile Justice Teacher of the Year. “We work on figuring out what their gifts and abilities are. They’ve probably been told they can’t read well or they’re a bad kid. We must establish a relationship and show the student you care. You do that, they will work with out and will come out of their shell eventually. It’s very rewarding.”