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Education Lab is a yearlong project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

April 23, 2014 at 5:00 AM

‘Just Learning’? In most juvenile prisons, students languish

Screen shot from "Just Learning." Data source: Consolidated State Performance Report, US Department of Education.

Screen shot from “Just Learning.” Data source: Consolidated State Performance Report, US Department of Education.

In every arena of education, Americans have become relentless in their search for evidence of results. That goes for preschools, colleges, anti-dropout programs — you name it. Except for one long-lingering category: juvenile detention.

The purpose of locking kids up has always been rehabilitation over punishment. Yet no central office in Washington — or nationally — tracks educational outcomes for this group of students, which needs help perhaps more than that any other to get on track. (Only 37 percent of youth in juvenile prisons are there for violent crimes; the rest have drug, property or public-order offenses.)

Last week, the Southern Education Foundation, a nonprofit based in Georgia, released findings from “Just Learning,” its national look at academic outcomes for the 70,000 young people incarcerated on any given day in the United States. The results were damning.

Fewer than half of youths earned a single course credit while locked up. Only 9 percent got a GED certificate or high school diploma. As a group, western states showed slightly better results — with 53 percent of incarcerated kids earning a course credit, though only 7 percent completed school.

“By every indicator that we can find — data from federal and state governments, results of scholarly research – these children are being given an education that is far below what is provided to other students who have less needs,” said Steve Suitts, vice-president of the foundation and author of the report. “Across the South and the nation, there is very little that’s being achieved in the juvenile justice schools for most children.”

One might ask, if these students earn so few school credits, what are they doing all day?

“In many cases, they’re doing very, very little,” said David Domenici, executive director at the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings. “They’re given handouts and dittos and crossword puzzles and fill-in-the-blanks. That’s what happens in a lot of our youth correctional facilities. What school district could exist with only 50 percent of the kids earning even one credit? There’s just no accountability.”

Domenici, a former corporate lawyer who became the principal in a juvenile prison in Washington, D.C., cites Utah and Indiana as two states achieving better-than-average outcomes. But lack of information has hindered researchers, which exemplifies the underlying problem.

“In an emerging era of ‘big data,’ the students and the juvenile justice schools they attend operate essentially as off-the-book enterprises, where standard public reporting and common rubrics of educational assessment do not apply,” the Just Learning report says.

Washington, which has about 1,000 students in long-term lock-up (or on parole), has begun to take a hard look at its outcomes, too.

Of ninth-graders who were in juvenile detention during 2005-’06, only 14 percent had graduated high school six years later, and 84 percent were drop-outs, according to Mindy Chambers, a spokeswoman for the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration.

“We have realized that we need to do a much better job of tracking these things,” she said.

One bright spot: “Education works with this population,” said Tom Blomberg, executive director of the Center for Criminology and Public Policy Research at Florida State University, who reviewed the report. “Education works better than anything I’ve seen in terms of treatment, scared straight, boot camps — you name the treatment — education is something that has a magical quality, and I witnessed it with thousands and thousands of cases.”

Washington state is in the midst of a three-year effort to match juvenile justice records with educational outcomes. Stay tuned for more results.

Comments | More in News | Topics: juvenile detention

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