Georgia Struggles to Teach Juveniles

With a few clicks on his smartphone, Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Avery Niles peeked at live video of several classrooms in one of the state’s 21 youth detention centers.

It’s one of his tools to stay on top of things.

Some say that for decades the state has not stayed on top of educating the tens of thousands of Georgia youths who cycle through the system. They return to their families and schools having fallen behind in their educations, and may be unemployable.

Niles said he believes the educational environment has vastly improved. DJJ officials say efforts to help youths once they leave, updated textbooks and more teacher training, among other efforts, are showing results. Still, “You always want to do better,” Niles said. “Am I satisfied with where we are? No.”

Data The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reviewed shows DJJ students were improving but still far below the statewide average on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, and more than four out of five failed to meet state standards in math, science and social studies. Three-quarters or more did not meet state standards on end-of-course tests in biology, math and U.S. history.

“I call it state-sponsored child abuse,” said Rick McDevitt, a longtime child advocate based in Atlanta.

Niles’ department has had struggles. For example, it wasn’t until late last year that it had the software capability to get some crucial information: the academic records of youths sent to its facilities. Niles, a former Hall County prison warden, said in an extensive interview with the AJC he requested the software, called the Infinite Campus student information system, when he took the job in 2012.

Niles declined the AJC’s request to tour a youth detention center, citing security concerns.

Most Georgia educators and advocates will tell you there are 180 school districts in the state. DJJ officials will eagerly correct you. The Georgia Preparatory Academy, the official name of DJJ educational programs, is school district No. 181. Nearly 7,000 youths were educated in 21 detention centers in the 2013-14 school year. Diplomas for high school graduates bear the name of the academy, with the intent of avoiding any stigma of graduating from a detention center when they’re looking for a job. More than 100 students received a diploma or a GED during the 2013-14 school year, according to DJJ data.

But several young men told the AJC they received little education in DJJ centers. Cornelious Hawkins, 15, who spent time in two centers between December 2013 and February 2014 after being caught in a stolen car, said students from different grade levels were put in the same classroom, some classmates were rowdy, they didn’t get textbooks and there was no homework.

Hawkins said his teacher focused only on a handful of students. “It was unprofessional,” and he had a hard time catching up when he returned to DeKalb County’s Maynard Jackson High School, he said. “If you are going to teach, you should teach to the whole class.”

Steven Hawkins, 16, Cornelious’ older brother, spent time at three DJJ facilities after being charged with armed robbery, battery and burglary. He said he once saw students toss books and a desk at a teacher. Hawkins said the textbooks were falling apart, he didn’t get homework and there were no tests.

Deandre Brown had a similar story. Brown, 20, said he and youths from other grade levels were put in the same class and given “simple math.” Brown said he was told he couldn’t see the results from a quiz. In some instances, the teacher told students to offer their own questions for students to answer.

“They gave up, so we gave up,” Brown said of his teachers.

DJJ officials say they cannot speak about former students’ individual experiences but insist all students have textbooks and they are offering Saturday classes at some of their facilities.

They said they began training teachers on the state’s performance standards two years ago and made other improvements to the classroom environment, including a program to help teachers discourage bullying and other disruptive behavior. Ninety-one percent of DJJ teachers are now certified in areas they teach, and the goal is for all to be certified this year.

The problem isn’t unique to Georgia. “Across the South and the nation, most juvenile justice schools and educational programs appear to be failing to make major improvements in the education of the students in state custody,” read one key passage in an April 2014 report by the Southern Education Foundation, an Atlanta-based group that works to help low-income and minority students improve academically.

The foundation said 48 percent of youths in Georgia DJJ facilities earned high school course credits and 9 percent earned their high school diploma. Georgia was about average in both categories, but below states where the state education department is in charge of teaching youths in its juvenile justice system.

It found Georgia spends about $11,000 a year to educate children in its juvenile justice facilities; twice as much as it spends on children in traditional public schools. The entire DJJ budget is about $300 million a year.

“How do we explain that amount of money. Where does it go?” McDevitt, the Atlanta activist, asked.

DJJ officials said the foundation did not contact them before releasing its report and disputed the accuracy of some findings. “It did not paint a true picture of who we are,” said Audrey Armistead, the department’s associate superintendent.

McDevitt was instrumental in designating a school district for DJJ youths. A cigar-chomping New York City native and Air Force vet, McDevitt, 66, is a familiar name to DJJ and state education officials. He wants state leaders to keep nonviolent young offenders out of DJJ facilities and wants state education officials to put more effort into educating these kids.

McDevitt runs a youth center in the shadow of Turner Field that bears his name. In the late 1980s, McDevitt boasts, he lobbied a state senator named Nathan Deal and others for reforms that eventually included the idea of making sure children in DJJ facilities get good educations while they are locked up.

The average length of a stay in a DJJ facilities is 549 days, officials say. Most of the youths have committed crimes like robbery, assault and drug possession. Few were A-students beforehand. More than two-thirds are black. One in five have been designated special-needs students.

DJJ officials say many students come to them several grade levels behind. They said much of their work involves reading skills, which they believe will help students improve in other subjects.

DJJ data show the percentage of its students who did not meet state reading standards on the CRCT fell from 50 percent in 2008 to 29 percent in 2013. The percentage of DJJ students who did not meet CRCT standards in English/language arts fell over that time span from 65 percent to 38 percent.

However, the percentages of DJJ students who did not meet CRCT standards in math, science and social studies in 2013 were 85 percent, 87 percent and 82 percent, respectively. During the 2013 school year, only 24.5 percent of DJJ students did not meet end-of-course test standards in American literature. More than 80 percent did not meet end-of-course test standards in Math I and Math II. The 2013 numbers were the most recent data available.

To help students once they leave, DJJ completed a plan late last year that offers mentoring through the Urban League, mental health services and vocational services. It is also giving its teachers state training in the Common Core standards, along with math, English/Language Arts, science and social studies.

State education department officials ordered DJJ in 2011 come up with transition plans for students with disabilities once they left high school. Three-quarters of DJJ teachers said in a subsequent report, however, that they had not received training on writing transition plans for students.

Consequences of youths’ detention-center schooling sometimes show up later.

Once he left DJJ custody, Brown said he tried to re-enroll in Clayton County’s Morrow High, but was not allowed to because he was too far behind academically and had been in too much trouble. Brown said he’s now working toward getting his GED.

“I’m not giving up,” he said.

By Eric Stirgus
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


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