Chatham YDC’s Sartwell Named JJDP Teacher of the Year 

Author: Jerry Higgins, Communications Officer

Woman in pink shirt holding award plaque

According to Leanna Sartwell, the pandemic was one of the best things that happened to her career as a teacher. Strange as that may sound, COVID-19 allowed Sartwell to teach in person  -- something she loves – as opposed to attempting to teach through a computer screen.

Sartwell, a science instructor at Chatham Youth Development Center, was recently named the Division of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention 2021-22 Teacher of the Year. The former Chatham County public school instructor engages her students of all ages and educational levels through the gamut of the vast world of science.

“Ms. Sartwell is a creative and resourceful teacher who is committed to supporting her students to experience success,” said Director of Juvenile Educational Services Adam Johnson. “You can feel her energy and excitement when she is discussing anything related to education or how to help students in our classrooms. The students at Chatham YDC are fortunate to have a passionate teacher like her."      

Chatham YDC Regional Assistant Principal Phyllis Jones said, “Leanna has a great enthusiasm and passion for teaching. She remains current with the latest instructional strategies and technologies. She has been tutoring students when they are not in class to help them overcome problems they are having when learning new concepts.”

Sartwell, who’s been teaching for nearly 20 years, found that teaching in a pandemic environment in public schools was not effective. She said one of the biggest assets of her teaching environment was the enthusiasm and comradery between her fellow teachers. The pandemic took that away and, in her words, removed her best teaching assets.

“When COVID hit, I looked for a face-to-face teaching job,” she said. “I knew nothing about juvenile justice and found out about this job. I confused it with a rehab facility or a detention center when it’s both. We can reduce recidivism due to education.

“Here I can really focus individually on the students. Instead of having a class of 32, I have around eight students. I can be more effective.”

As a science teacher, Sartwell can focus on a singular subject such as cells and how they change while teaching to a class of students in grades 6 to 12. She strives to find literature that can be used across grade levels and builds lessons that are relatable to students of different ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. 

“Bringing engagement to a classroom is the number one focus of my lessons,” Sartwell said. “Finding new ways for students to love learning is a never-ending quest. As I set goals for my lessons, I always keep my focus on how students will remain interested, curious and invested in the learning process. 

“When I talk to the kids about science, they do not know why they have to learn about ecology and other things. I tell them that they will be adults; they will buy a home, vote and need to know the issues. I want them to be informed adults even if they’re not going to be a scientist.”

Sartwell credits Johnson, Jones and Chatham YDC Director Fleuretta McDougald with finding the resources necessary to create an effective learning environment. That support assists Sartwell in viewing her students as students and not youth housed in a youth development center to right a wrong.

“I look at these kids not as people who have done wrong but just as kids,” Sartwell said. “In my classroom, they are just a child who needs me. I show them respect as a person. It breaks my heart what they did on the outside, but in the classroom, they are closed off to the other part of their lives and I see them as what they can be as opposed to what they were.

“In the public schools, if a student can’t read, they are passed along. Here, we have a stronger and higher responsibility. We have them for the foreseeable future. We must teach them now. We do the best we can. I may have a 14 year old on a second-grade reading level, but I put in the effort and try to make a connection, so they have a love for learning. That may be the biggest impact I have on a student.”

Sartwell received her honor at the annual DJJDP Education Conference, which brought together educators from the state’s juvenile youth development and detention centers. 

Some of the topics discussed at the conference included:

  • Improving students’ academic vocabulary and literacy skills; 
  • Effective instructional practices and resources for the juvenile justice classroom; 
  • Planning and implementing effective services for students receiving special education services; 
  • The importance of unlocking the potential of incarcerated students; and   
  • Hearing from a formerly incarcerated youth who shared his motivational story of his transformation to obtaining his GED and eventually earning his doctorate. 


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