How Do We Teach Our Jailed Youth?

Nov 4, 2010
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

The Task at Hand: Finding a way to educate incarcerated youth and keep them from falling further off track while they serve time.

Who They Are: Young men in Washington, D.C., who have been convicted of crimes both minor and severe, sentenced to spend time in a correctional facility. Most have only three high school credits. A majority read at the 4th or 5th grade level. Almost half have been identified as having special needs.

How to get back on track when jail time derails students&39; education? (Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)

The Challenges: Some students stay for five days, and others stay as many as 12 months; defining credits means assessing how much a student can learn given the time available. To add to the difficulty, students' capabilities are as varied as their sentence times. Some can't read; others are ready to take the next step in geometry. 

Who's Taken Up the Charge: The Maya Angelou Academy (MAA), a charter-like school at the New Beginnings Youth Development Center where Principal David Domenici says he hopes to give each student the best education possible—and perhaps the best he's ever had.

How They Do It: To address the high turnover rate of its student body, MAA has divided its curriculum into one-month units; completion earns students an eighth of a credit. No matter how much time they spend at MAA, students can leave having accomplished something.

Teachers make a special effort to make classes interesting, knowing that engaging students in learning is half the battle. The young men's lessons include making life-size self-portraits in art class, learning about Islam in social studies, and playing "Anger Pictionary" in anger management class.

To address the varying levels of proficiency, teachers concentrate on providing a supportive environment and bringing in teaching assistants to ensure students keep up. Students who are at or above grade level continue to excel with the help of computer software.

What's Next: For some students, the program is already working. Once suffering from a drug problem, 17-year-old "Marcus" says he's ready to return to the outside and join his peers in 11th grade, and eventually go on to college. "[The teachers at MAA] want you to figure out who you really are in life," he told Education Week, "not just in front of your friends."

Read the full story here.

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