Before Malik was locked away in a juvenile prison in Woodsbend, a small town tucked into Kentucky’s Appalachian Mountains, he didn’t care much about school. No one in his immediate family has a high school diploma and his teachers, it seemed, only cared about the successful students.
Malik, who is 18, spent a year and a half at Woodsbend for burglary and robbery. His experience in juvenile detention completely shifted his perspective on education. The game changer was his encounter with Stephen McKenzie, a teacher who earned Malik’s trust by showing him that he wouldn’t give up on him during a course in chemistry. To help him get comfortable with the material, McKenzie set up a makeshift lab just for Malik: a project that requires extra imagination in a juvenile facility since many chemicals and objects are banned. “He showed me how to tell volumes using cups full of water and different weights,” Malik says.
The day Malik completed the chemistry course, McKenzie and other members of the staff borrowed a lab coat from the facility’s nurse and brought it to him. “He was holding a beaker and he was … just smiling,” McKenzie recalls of the moment, which they photographed.
Malik’s academic turnaround is not an isolated story at Woodsbend or other juvenile facilities in Kentucky. In 2013, the state revamped its approach to education through a combination of new strategies: It expanded the use of online education without forgoing in-person instruction and shored up vocational programs. The budget remains the same, it’s just being used more creatively.
This is part of a national effort to transform schooling in juvenile education centers. Increasingly, officials are realizing that incarcerated youth are in a unique position to buckle down and focus on school—even if they’ve been wayward or absent students in their former lives. While incarcerated, students like Malik are, in effect, a captive audience with little else to occupy their time. Some of them experience an epiphany of sorts when, separated from past living conditions and habits, they can finally recognize and appreciate the importance of education in forging a different path.
For decades, incarcerated youth have been the forgotten students of American education. But they’re also the population where a few extra resources, creativity, and support can go the furthest. Slowly—too slowly, some say—that’s starting to change, in Kentucky and elsewhere.
The organization behind much of this work is the five-year-old Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings, which has been helping Kentucky and 17 other states across the country rethink budgeting, teacher training, and educational programming for incarcerated youth. Specifically, the organization hosts training camps for teachers and administrators from juvenile facilities, where they gather to share ideas and brainstorm together. Over the past four years, educators from 70 facilities have taken part in these sessions.
The center has customized relationships with partner states and cities: Some just send teachers to the training, or rely on the group for help with specialized programming; in other cases, the center is much more involved, managing the day-to-day operations of the juvenile facility. Center founder David Domenici, who is a lawyer, says he hopes the work will help spark a broader “revolution” throughout the country. He was founding principal of the Maya Angelou Academy, a facility serving incarcerated youth in Washington. At Maya Angelou, Domenici test-drove his ideas, which he hoped would create a far more engaging and individualized approach for students.
In New Orleans, the school actually runs inside the city’s juvenile center, serving an average of 40 students. Over the summer, Domenici announced the results of their first year: Three students graduated, and overall the kids at the school passed 79 “end-of-course exams,” which are a requirement for graduation in Louisiana.
This year Kentucky paid the center a fee of $17,500 for technical support, advice in key areas, and teacher training. The person responsible for bringing the center’s approach to Kentucky is Sylvia Kuster, a former elementary teacher who now oversees the educational programs in six detention centers where youth wait for their trials, and eight more long-term facilities for juveniles convicted of crimes.
Kuster, who is 69, divides her time between her house in northeastern Kentucky, her office in Frankfurt, and her white Toyota, which she calls her second apartment. With a change of pressed clothes always hanging in the back of her car, she often travels from one youth facility to another.
She first reached out to Domenici’s organization in 2013 because she wanted support helping incarcerated students use the Internet more safely and effectively in their coursework. Domenici and his team showed teachers how to tightly monitor and control web use within their correctional centers, creating “blacklists” and “whitelists” of websites, and keeping track of the search histories on each device. Whereas inmates were previously forced to work on computer courses that were anything but interactive, the new protocol allows them to take more sophisticated courses like their peers on “the outside.”
The dividends of that outreach were clear one sunny morning in early May, when a dozen students sat in the math and science class at the Woodsbend facility, each of them focused on their own personalized program. One of them studied the effects of pollution on lungs, reading an article from a scientific magazine on an iPad. Every few minutes, he stopped to take notes in a notebook and to answer written questions provided by a teacher. A student named Chad, 18, sat at a computer designing a racing car with a 3-D design app called Tinker and an online tutorial opened in another window. “I enjoy doing this stuff,” said Chad. “All that I want now is a diploma,” he added, noting that online courses may help make that more feasible.
At Woodsbend, teachers and students communicate through an internal email server, and maintain a sharing platform through Edmodo, where educators can post links to YouTube videos thanks to a filter called Safeshare. Students can also use Chromebooks and work after school hours with an offline system. The software and Chromebooks were either provided by Domenici’s group or purchased with federal money from Title I funds.
In the Northern Kentucky Youth Development Center, Aaron, who is 16, said he’s able to “fly” through his courses thanks to the new online programming. In the first two weeks at the center he earned an entire credit in science, which usually takes a semester. He says the courses provide plenty of examples, videos, and lab lectures. Aaron dreams of attending college someday—he’s already compiled a list of ones that interest him—and wants to study either criminal justice or engineering.
One new initiative that makes Kuster feel especially proud is a partnership with the Department of Labor that grants certificates and trains kids for jobs in fields with the greatest number of openings. In Woodsbend, they offer carpentry and electricity. At the Northern Kentucky Youth Development Center, classes are offered in fiber-optic wiring and masonry, two growing sectors in the area.
There are a few reasons this effort is happening now.
The first is the national push to decrease the number of juvenile inmates. Over the past 10 years, the number of incarcerated youth has fallen from about 93,000 in 2006 to 48,000 in 2015. With less-crowded facilities, administrators have been able to start focusing on how to improve their services, rather than using all their energy to maintain order. “People started asking: Now that it is not terrible, can we actually make it good?” says Domenici.
In order to decrease the number of incarcerated youth, some states are attempting to create alternative community-based programs that keep kids monitored but out of jail-like settings. In Kentucky, there has also been a push to avoid incarcerating youth who commit “status offenses”—noncriminal acts such as running away from home or attempting to purchase tobacco or alcohol underage. It’s a challenging work in progress: In 2014 more than 1,000 juveniles in Kentucky were still detained for these more minor offenses.
The move to shrink and improve these places is responding to the growing recognition that juvenile facilities often exacerbate social inequality rather than rehabilitate wayward youth. A letter released by the federal departments of justice and education in 2014 reported that fewer than 50 percent of incarcerated youth were earning a diploma, and more than 70 percent had learning disabilities, prompting agitation and lawsuits from advocates, parents, and even governmental agencies across the country. The federal government urged local administrators to “be creative” and find a way to offer an education “comparable to offerings in traditional public schools.”
The needs of the remaining students is partly why states like Kentucky can’t rely on online courses alone to improve their educational offerings. They also need more dedicated and qualified teachers throughout their youth facilities.
“Our educational program has improved tremendously, but we need more teachers,” says Kuster, adding that they’re obliged to follow the student to teacher ratio set by the local school district. With the impossibility of hiring a range of specialist teachers, most educators at Woodsbend take on several roles. Last May, the principal was also teaching English and social studies. Stephen McKenzie taught math and science (he is licensed in both). Two vocational teachers offered training in carpentry and electricity. And another educator taught kids life and resume-building skills so they could apply for jobs and manage their personal finances. The majority of the youths who arrive at the facility are behind academically, sometimes unable even to read. And Kuster says the facility desperately needs a qualified special education instructor.
Because of fluctuations in the prison population and different agencies involved, the jobs aren’t always stable, which can be a deterrent to potential teachers. But those who work in juvenile facilities say there are other rewards apart from the pay. There’s no comparison to watching a formerly troubled student turn his life around. In the Northern Kentucky Youth Development Center—a facility where the majority of kids have been charged with sexual offenses—Dave Gideon, a former youth worker, finds the greatest remuneration in his students’ progress. He teaches a vocational course in fiber optic wiring and recalls one student named Jonathan, who was angry and disillusioned when he arrived at the detention center last fall. Jonathan had been living in a car with his father, and his mother was in jail; he had earned only seven high school credits.
Jonathan, who is 18, had become much more motivated and consistent with his schoolwork inside the facility. He took most of his courses online, but his favorite class was a hands-on course: the one in fiber-optic wiring taught by Gideon. “Thanks to people like David, something that I thought was impossible, now is very, very possible,” Jonathan said last May while sitting in his classroom. “Here they taught me to be honest and patient, something important for my future outside.” There are many things he dislikes about being incarcerated, but he appreciates the reliability. “I know that everything in that schedule is actually going to happen,” he says. “Before, I didn’t even know when I would be eating my next meal—now I can make plans.” Jonathan graduated and was released over the summer. He is currently living in a group home and working on enrolling in a community college.
As the continued difficulty attracting and hiring enough qualified teachers shows, the new improvement efforts certainly haven’t solved all of the myriad problems facing juvenile inmates (and nor has the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings even reached a majority of states). Although the numbers of youth inmates are dropping, those kids who remain tend to have greater social problems and need much more intense care than some of their predecessors. Experts say that accountability is a thorny, and huge, challenge. Tracking results is particularly difficult at schools inside juvenile facilities: many kids spend only short stints there, and there’s often not a consistent enough number to make graduation rate data meaningful, for instance. According to Peter Leone, a professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Education, the federal government needs to issue much clearer guidelines to states on how schools inside juvenile facilities should be run, and how results should be tracked—and not hesitate to withhold federal funds from those states that don’t meet the standards.
In the meantime, there’s a new sense of optimism at least among some, including McKenzie, the math and science instructor at Woodsbend. He says that initially he felt frustrated and somewhat isolated when he began teaching there; even with 18 years of experience in public schools, he had no idea how to connect with teachers in other juvenile facilities. The meetings with staff from the Center for Educational Excellence helped change that. Now, he’s in touch with teachers working in similar settings from across the country and he’s confident he can make a difference, at least with some students.
In May, when I visited Woodsbend, Malik did not know whether he would soon be released or would have to transfer to an adult facility to finish his sentence. During his incarceration, he earned his high school diploma and even took some college courses; he dreams of finishing his college studies and becoming an industrial electrician. Malik felt an attachment—and appreciation—for the teachers at Woodsbend that’s unlike any connection he’s ever had with a school. He’s out now, but he knows one day he’ll return to Kentucky’s Appalachian Mountains to revisit Woodsbend—this time of his own volition. “Whenever I graduate college, I’ll go to Woodsbend and thank my teachers,” he says.