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Juvenile Hall classes offer offenders an education

/ Source: Santa Maria Times

When kids enter the juvenile justice system, the task of educating them falls into the hands of the professionals at youth detention centers throughout Santa Barbara County.

There, teaching staff must keep up with the ever-changing wave of young people who wash in and out of the halls of justice.

Lorenzo, for example, has lived in institutions of one type or another for most of his life.

"When I'm on the outside, I don't really go to school," the 16-year-old said. "I'm better in this kind of school."

Just days away from his next release, Lorenzo, whose last name was withheld because he is a juvenile offender, said he worries about how he'll function in society.

"It's going to be hard. I'm nervous," he said, his eyes downcast, but "I can turn it around."

Further complicating matters for both young people and their teachers, each juvenile comes replete with a unique set of issues that must be tackled before any real learning can take place. More often than not, these youths have glaring gaps in their knowledge of basic concepts in subjects such as math and English.

Educating society's so-called throwaway kids poses a formidable challenge, but education gives them the best shot they have at leading productive lives on "the outside."

Like Lorenzo, Anthony, 17, knows the routine by now.

He has drifted in and out of Juvenile Hall since his 12th birthday, but he says his

3-year-old daughter has given him the motivation he needs to finally succeed this time around.

"I'm going to graduate high school and then start slow and take some classes at Hancock," he said.

Just a few credits shy of graduation, it seems Anthony may be on his way toward fulfilling his dream of becoming a graphic designer.

While failure remains ubiquitous, the system has its share of success stories, and graduating classes at Juvenile Hall, Los Prietos Boys' Camp and the county's three community schools continue to grow steadily each year, said Fred Razo of the Santa Barbara County Office of Education, which runs the juvenile offender education program.

"We're like an ocean," Razo said of the fluid nature of educating juvenile offenders. "We have the most at-risk kids in the county, but that's what we're designed for ... Our job first and foremost is to determine what they need. We want to make sure we give them exactly what they need, when they need it."

In any given year, the system serves up to 2,200 offenders, according to the county schools office. On any given day, up to 650 offenders sit in class in the county's six court and community schools.

Juveniles attend the court schools, Los Robles High School at the Boy's Camp and Dos Puertas at Santa Maria's Juvenile Hall, while in custody.

Once released, they take classes on site at a counseling and education center for 100 days before integrating into El Puente Community School, which has campuses in Lompoc and Santa Barbara, or Peter B. FitzGerald Community School in Santa Maria.

Each site employs only staff members who are specially trained in meeting the needs of youths in the criminal justice system.

Those needs are as varied as the offenders themselves, and run the gamut from undiagnosed learning disabilities to severe mental or behavioral disorders.

Nearly all incarcerated youths have lost months or even years of instruction during their short lifetimes, either because they've dropped out of school at some point or because they have been shuffled through several educational institutions scattered throughout the state.

Just piecing together those kids' records is difficult, though a database system the county recently purchased for $150,000 makes it easier to collect school records.

With access to the records, teachers can tailor an educational program for each student that will put him or her on a path toward graduation.

Time presents yet another obstacle to educating incarcerated juveniles.

At Los Robles, offenders go to school for the duration of their 120- or 180-day sentence.

But at Juvenile Hall, the length of each inmate's stay varies greatly, and offenders serve stints that last anywhere from a few days to a year or longer.

Urban legend has it that Dos Puertas, Spanish for "two doors," got its name from the set of doors that detainees pass through during the intake process at Santa Maria Juvenile Hall.

Behind those doors, Razo said, awaits an opportunity for each detainee to turn his or her life around.

A typical school day at "The Hall" starts with an orientation session, during which inmates get a briefing on the rules they have to follow, and play a question-and-answer game designed to encourage classroom participation.

Then they break into groups and go to their respective classes.

"These guys want to be here," said longtime instructor Joel Sheldon. "If we have to close our schools early for meetings, the kids are disappointed."

Indeed, classes break up the monotony of life behind bars, and kids who misbehave get relegated to their cells for the day.

With the pressures of street life gone, many detainees discover that, for the first time in their brief lives, they can focus on their academics.

Locked up on attempted murder charges, Karla, 17, has used her time behind bars to catch up on academics and is now 80 credits shy of graduation. She hopes to get clearance for Cyber High, a computer-based independent study program available to inmates.

"I like the staff that works here and I'd like to work here too," Karla said of the Hall. "I've seen a lot of stuff and know what it's like, so I can pull it off."

Her time at Juvenile Hall will be short; she took a plea deal and will be transferred to a California Youth Authority facility or released on parole immediately after her sentencing hearing.

Not all Karla's classmates share her optimism for the future.

"It's a waste of time," said Jessica, 16. "I don't need an education. I don't like school. Period."

In the local Cyber High classroom, Carlton Tropper went from station to station assisting his 14 students.

"The students really seem to enjoy (Cyber High)," Tropper said "They're raised on computers, so it's a real natural forum for them."

Stevie, 18, has taken Cyber High classes since he first turned himself in to Juvenile Hall authorities in February and has done so well that he has already started filling out registration forms for Hancock College.

On the run most of his life, Stevie said he just "wants to make money and be a good person."

While he's looking forward to his impending release, Stevie said he's not sure what life holds for him on the outside.

"It'll feel weird because I'll always be looking over my shoulder," he said. "It's time to move on, though."

August 23, 2009