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Education

A View From Inside

A few weeks ago, I was at my parents’ house helping them downsize when I came across a pendant that I had to have. I can remember it clearly from when I was little, a large gold circle with a swirly representation of my father’s initials. This was the wardrobe item I hadn’t even known I needed in my life.

“Dad, can I wear this?” I begged. It was so, so 70s. “Please?”

He shrugged. “Sure,” he answered. “As long as they don’t cut it off your neck in the prison.”

Ouch. At one time, I might have thought that my father was being his usual self, exaggerating what he believes are the dangers of my job as a teacher in a juvenile detention center. But I’ve been thanked too many times, like a soldier returning from war, to think that his is an isolated opinion.

Surrounded by boys and men of color, people whose experiences hew close to mine, who almost uniformly speak to me with love and respect, I have never felt more safe in a school environment.

“God bless you,” is the number one response when people hear what I do for a living. Then there are all the variations on “Isn’t that dangerous?”

Surrounded by boys and men of color, people whose experiences hew close to mine, who almost uniformly speak to me with love and respect, I have never felt more safe in a school environment. Still, I know what the world thinks of my students. My father’s comment didn’t shock me. What’s really shocking is how similar jail is to the public schools where I used to teach.

Walking in lines, raising a hand to speak, securing permission to use the bathroom, staying in one’s assigned area – these policies are common to public schools and to juvenile detention centers. In addition, schools have implemented zero tolerance discipline policies which disproportionately affect minority and low income students and send them to detention. In some places, for some students, detention and public schools are effectively the same system. They move several times a year, out of a school environment which continually punishes them and into detention school with the same behavior restrictions. Maybe the only real difference is that we have to work with them because there is no place left to send them if we can’t. That fact can change the whole dynamic, if teachers are willing to take advantage of their captive audience.

At a time when our lawmakers are trying to pass legislation which would save our government a comparative pittance but make it more difficult for poor kids to get meals in school, I cannot emphasize enough how difficult it is for students to learn when they are facing basic survival issues.

In recent interviews, Paul Tough has proposed that for students from disadvantaged backgrounds – in other words, the poor kids who make up half of the public school population – discipline is not nearly as important as the environment in which students learn. He suggests that “grit” and other noncognitive skills cannot be taught, but instead fostered by student buy in and the presence of caring, engaged adults.

At my detention school, that is what students encounter. Because the population is always in flux, teachers are not bound to pacing calendars or high stakes testing, but instead choose how best to meet students’ educational needs. We teach biology and algebra, but we also invite students to join book club. We have music and art; we raise trout, and fruits and vegetables in our greenhouse. We learn robotics and coding. We host health fairs and career fairs and visiting poets and bankers.

We benefit from small class sizes, no technological distractions, and students who always have a safe place to sleep and three square meals a day. At a time when our lawmakers are trying to pass legislation which would save our government a comparative pittance but make it more difficult for poor kids to get meals in school, I cannot emphasize enough how difficult it is for students to learn when they are facing basic survival issues. For many of my students, this is the first time in their lives when they have not had to confront food or housing insecurity. When they’ve always had a bed of their own that is warm and dry.

So, what happens when the worst of the worst, the thugs, the kids so bad that they have to separated from society – although the majority of them have not yet been convicted of a crime – are provided with these resources in a supportive environment?

So, what happens when the worst of the worst, the thugs, the kids so bad that they have to separated from society – although the majority of them have not yet been convicted of a crime – are provided with these resources in a supportive environment?

Well, they learn. We see increased reading levels from students who are with us for at least 30 days. We assess once a month with no pressure – the scores are for our information and to provide statistics for grants and other funding. In the 2014-2015 school year, 75% of students who were reading below grade level when they arrived showed gains within the first month. For GED students, our program had a 94% pass rate for calendar years 2014 and 2015.

Juvenile detention is by no stretch of the imagination some kind of utopia. As a woman of color, I know that locking up Black, brown and poor kids is not a solution. The system is rife with abuses – punitive use of solitary confinement being chief among them in my opinion. My students still have huge problems when they return home. Finally, I must point a finger at the systems which place kids under the jurisdiction of the justice system in the first place, in numbers that would make other first world countries blush.

My point is, we know what works in education. It works in wealthy schools across the nation and in juvenile detention when we let it. We are simply not willing to believe that our minority children, our poor children, can be educated similarly. My experience shows that they can be. I am aware that I teach at an exceptional center which prioritizes education – often, that is not the case. Still, I have had multiple students tell me they wished they could remain in detention, so maybe they’d have a shot at graduating from high school. When jail seems just like school or even better, something’s wrong.

By Drew Carto

Drew Carto is a native New Yorker, a second career educator, and a Bryn Mawr grad. She hold's a Master's Degree in Education and is currently teaching in a juvenile detention setting.