Starting off the school year right—
For high school students across the country, Labor Day’s passing signals the end of summer and the start of the school year. For many, the first few weeks back are filled with anticipation and newness. Ninth graders entering a big high school, twelfth graders thinking about one more year before they’re “done” and off to pursue their dreams at college or work. It’s a new year—a time to start fresh.
But for the kids we focus on here at the Center—kids locked up in secure facilities—it’s often a time of regret, of anger, and of missed opportunities. And for many of these kids, there’s nothing new about school in September. It’s just part of their everyday existence in a place that never allows them to forget they are not free.
During visits to seventeen states and thirty-five youth facilities last school year, I talked with hundreds of kids. In focus groups, I would ask them to try and separate out their views of school from their feelings about being locked up. I wanted to know what they thought of their teachers, what they were learning, and what they hoped to get out of school while they were incarcerated.
Mostly, they said they wanted teachers who cared about them. And when I asked them what caring looked like, it was pretty simple.
“A teacher that cares will pull you aside and really help you learn how to read—and won’t just give you a book and tell you to do it on your own.”
I saw some great English teachers doing the hard work of teaching teens to read. In a cramped classroom in a facility just outside of Richmond, a former college professor, who said she just felt that teaching in the juvenile center was right for her, had students working with their peers at reading stations while she tutored two beginning readers. In a classroom in a site near Salt Lake City, a teacher was facilitating as students read aloud from Tim O'Brien's book, The Things They Carried. Every student kept a reading journal and an individualized vocabulary log.
“If they care, that means they aren’t afraid of you, and they don’t look at you like you are a criminal—they give you a clean chance.”
That’s what I saw in a horticulture class in a site not far from Boston. The teacher was out in the garden with the girls, using real tools, and not afraid to talk about the issues of violence and negative peer pressure they were going to face upon release. That’s what I saw in a social studies class tucked away in a small facility in central Florida, where the teacher had one student running the smartboard and video player, another tossing out novels to his classmates as they transitioned to the next activity, and a third in charge of collecting the class supplies at the end of the period. The teacher was effusive in her praise of the guys who were working, appropriately disappointed when others didn’t meet her expectations, and totally comfortable with the little bit of managed chaos that often characterizes a class that’s alive and well. And that’s what I saw when I walked through a welding class in a facility way out in Corsicana, Texas, where three guys were working with torches, designing medallions for a schoolwide project.
I also, unfortunately, saw a lot of noncaring. In some facilities, I’d go from class to class to class and not see any teaching. Instead, I saw adults at their desks while kids completed mind-numbing worksheets, read out-of-date textbooks, and completed “assignments” consisting solely of answering every third multiple-choice problem at the end of each chapter section. I sat through vocational classes where students learned skills no longer relevant in the job market. I chatted with kids who had obtained their high school diploma or GED and now spent their days just sitting around doing nothing, forbidden to take online college classes because of outdated polices prohibiting the school from having Internet access.
week, I was lucky to go out to the Maya Angelou Academy, the school
inside of Washington, DC’s long-term youth facility. In English,
students were reading Ernest J. Gaines’ A
Lesson Before Dying.
The lead teacher, Chelsea, was exhorting the class to dig into a
passage from the novel while Amanda, who works with struggling
learners, was huddled up with two students at a separate table,
reading aloud with them and coaching them. In art, Emily and Darshawn
introduced students to color, mood and self-expression through paints. And in math, one student led the class through a problem on
the smartboard while the teachers worked with others at their tables.
Meanwhile, in the office down the hall, Maurice, the guidance
counselor, was making plans for a trip to a local college with five
It felt like the first week of high school
should. The school itself felt new and special, a place to start
fresh. It felt like a place where adults really care—where young
people are supported and pushed to excel, expected to learn, and
treated as scholars, not criminals.
Here’s to the
start of a new year—
This letter is reposted with permission from David Domenici. David is the executive director of the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings.