More, Different Learning for Youth in Juvenile Justice

maya angelou
A tutoring session at Maya Angelou PCS. (courtesy Maya Angelou PCS) 
SparkAction (at press time, Connect for Kids)
Caitlin Johnson
March 1, 2014
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Update April 2014:  In Juvenile Justice System, Education Seen Lacking (Education Week)

Most days of the week, students at the Maya Angelou public charter high school in Washington, DC, attend classes from 9 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.

But on Wednesdays, they push through the school doors and hit the streets in the early afternoon. The early dismissal doesn't mean their work is over—far from it. These students are headed to their part-time jobs. They'll work until evening at nearby elementary schools and in financial consulting firms, law firms, doctor's offices and other local businesses and nonprofits.

Many of Maya Angelou's 230 students have not succeeded in traditional school settings—some officially dropped out, some were expelled, others just sort of drifted. Roughly 30 percent of Maya Angelou students are or have been involved with the juvenile justice system, the foster care system, or both.

These part-time jobs are part of the curriculum at Maya Angelou, which has two campuses. This exposure to work is designed to keep students engaged, as are the small class sizes during school, which range from 5 to 15 students.

After school, students spend an hour on electives like drama, art, photography, or athletics. They eat dinner together at 5:30 p.m.—three meals a day are provided free of charge to all students—and then settle in to the library for mandatory study hall and homework help until 7:15 p.m., when they're free to go home.

It's an unconventional approach borne of an effort to reach students failed by more traditional schools—particularly teens in the juvenile justice system. Since earning charter status in 1998, Maya Angelou can no longer limit enrollment to youth in the juvenile justice system as it once did—but it continues to work with judges, social workers, and juvenile agencies to reach out to these and other disconnected students.

A Proven Benefit

Numerous studies show that one of the most effective ways to help young people in juvenile justice get back on track is by advancing their educational skills, according to the National Center on Education, Juvenile Justice, and Disability. Reconnecting these kids to school has been shown to reduce recidivism. But the quality and even the availability of basic educational services in juvenile justice settings is spotty at best.

"Tragically, some of the kids who need the best options are the ones who get the worst alternatives," says David Domenici, co-founder of Maya Angelou and executive director of the See Forever Foundation.

"Kids who are already behind, have quit or been pushed out of school, or are in a confined facility need the most support to move out of poverty and low education [performance] and into college. They end up in schools that don't work well and it tracks them right back into an unhealthy situation," he says.

A Different Approach

Some 500,000 youth nationwide are detained or incarcerated in juvenile justice (often called juvenile delinquency) systems every year, according to the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

It is a system intended to differ from the criminal justice system. Even the language signals a kinder, gentler approach—defendants face a "hearing," not a trial; they are pronounced "delinquent," not guilty. The goal has historically been rehabilitation, based on the premise that it's not too late for young people to recover and turn their lives around.

"Education is critical for these kids. If you want to rehabilitate young people, it's the most obvious thing to do," says Joseph Tulman, professor of law at the Juvenile Justice and Special Education Law Clinic at the University of the District of Columbia.

Yet over the past two decades, there have been more than 25 lawsuits against states, charging them with failure to provide adequate education to kids in the delinquency system.

"Many juvenile incarceration facilities have miserably inadequate education programs," says Tulman. "A huge percentage of kids incarcerated or otherwise in the delinquency system also have unmet special education needs, and there's an astounding lack of advocacy to enforce the rights for those kids."

Kids involved in the juvenile justice system disproportionately come from low-income, minority families. Most perform below grade level, and while educational disabilities affect 10 percent of youth overall, that number jumps to about 43 percent in the juvenile justice system. (A small number of court-involved kids are academically on target or gifted, meaning a wide range of abilities need to be addressed.)

Money is always an issue— juvenile justice facilities often have limited funds and resources, and education may take a back seat to safety and security. Kids who are not incarcerated may remain in public schools or seek alternative education programs, like Maya Angelou. In some regions, particularly rural areas, good alternatives can be hard to find.

A Right to Learn?

The situation is further complicated by the fact that access to education is governed by state, not federal, laws. States establish the age at which young people can leave school without being truant—usually age 16 or 17. Some states have statutory or constitutionally guaranteed rights to education, but enforcement varies.

"The juvenile justice system is not really one system," says Hunter Hearst, Jr., senior research assistant with the National Center for Juvenile Justice, a research and policy advisory clearinghouse. States structure their systems differently. "As a result, education in detention and confinement is really a state-by-state issue."

There are some federal protections. For example, the No Child Left Behind Act includes provisions for educating "Neglected and Delinquent" students, and requires schools in juvenile justice facilities to assess teacher quality and students' yearly progress.

But in 2004, the most recent year for which data were collected, 19 states were not reporting on "Adequate Yearly Progress" for their juvenile justice schools, and some states had no systems for collecting any educational performance data on incarcerated youth, according to the National Collaboration Project.


Maya Angelou PCS students. (courtesy Maya Angelou PCS)

Maya Angelou PCS students.
(courtesy Maya Angelou PCS)

"Dumping" Kids into Juvenile Justice

Absent federal requirements and accountability, it's hard to find uniform data on how states are providing education to young offenders. The National Collaboration Project and National Center for Education, Juvenile Justice, and Disability (EDJJ) are among organizations working to collect comprehensive data and paint a state-by-state picture, but the results are not yet in.

Painting a picture of kids in the system—and whether they're getting appropriate education—is increasingly important because the numbers of incarcerated kids are on the rise, even as delinquency caseloads and juvenile crime are down.

From 1993-1999, for example, the juvenile arrest rate for violent offenses dropped by 33 percent while at the same time, the number of young people confined in residential institutions rose 48 percent, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

"What's happening appears to be 'dumping' kids from one system to another," says Joseph Tulman. In his opinion, schools often target their resources to kids with moderate needs, where they see a better chance of success, while those with the most severe needs are not a priority.

"The [hardest-to-serve] kids may get channeled into special education classes, if anything, and if that's not enough for the most severe cases, they drop out. They are pushed into systems that can't reject them, like the delinquency system," says Tulman.

Special Education

Federal laws apply to kids with special education needs. The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) guarantees appropriate educational services to any student identified as having special needs, in many cases through age 21. It applies equally to eligible kids in juvenile or adult justice system and those in public school.

That doesn't mean incarcerated kids with special needs are necessarily getting the services they deserve, cautions Joseph Tulman, but it does make it easier to demand them, and file suit if they are not adequately provided.

At DC's Maya Angelou school, each student starts with an intake interview. "We spend a lot of time up front figuring out what will work with students and what programs and services we need to put in place to help them be successful here," says David Domenici.

All students participate in group counseling. There are social workers, a fulltime psychologist, and special education coordinators on campus.

In the States: Promising Approaches, but Room to Grow

Several states have begun to change their approach to educating kids in juvenile justice.

A particularly promising program is underway in Indiana. There, the federally funded Safe and Responsive Schools initiative is helping stem the flow of kids from schools to delinquency systems, and giving public schools the resources to address problems before they get out of hand. Intensive in-school interventions and increased special education services have brought a big decline in drop-out rates—at one site where drop-out rates were running about 70 to 80 percent, the rates have dropped by nearly 40 percent after three years.

In December 2005, amidst allegations that it was providing inadequate education to young offenders, the city of Baltimore, Maryland closed its notorious Hicks school. The school's 100 students have been moved to Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, where they'll get basic education, life skills, computer literacy and media courses. One of the new agreements: the Center will offer more classes, and will provide weekly education reports to the public defender's office.

Schools like Maya Angelou—which serves students who are involved with the courts for offenses that range from minor to serious, sometimes violent—offer examples of effective alternatives.

The National Center for Education, Juvenile Justice, and Disability (EDJJ) recommends including basic literacy instruction and courses that can transfer to traditional high schools if students choose to return. EDJJ also recommends academic and vocational education that's relevant to students' interests, lives, and communities. Reversing students' sense of disconnection to academic settings is also important.

"With students who've been disengaged, they can't just show up to school and have it feel like the school they used to go to. Especially for kids who have potentially been successful at nonperforming, you've got to convince them that this is different—that there is no 'back of the class' where they can put their heads down on their desks," says Maya Angelou's David Domenici.

Maya Angelou students buck national graduation rate trends: more than 90 percent will graduate in four years, compared with 68 percent across the country (and a dismal 50 percent rate among their urban, minority peers, according to the Urban Institute).

For the past five years, about 70 percent of graduating seniors at Maya Angelou have gone on to college. "Our goal is to help them move up and out of poverty and into higher education," says Domenici.

Resources on Education and Juvenile Delinquency

Caitlin Johnson is the co-founder and managing editor of This article was originally published on on January 9, 2006 and was updated in 2014.

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Please everyone read this, sign and then pass it along. This bill is very important. No child should be tried as an adult in this country. We need at least 5000 signatures.

January 30 at 03:01pm

The professionals who work with children of prisoners MUST be trained in issues of prison, the effects of prison and parental incarceration on children and families and how to best encourage their success. It is not enough to stand mute when a child needs to talk--or believe that a parent in prison equals death or divorce. Children of prisoners are not just "kids at risk"--they are survivors and children of promise and potential who can thrive if given the proper response to telling a teacher, guidance counselor or other helping adult that dad is in prison or mom was arrested last night.

Alison Coleman
Prison Families of New York, Inc.
40 North Main Ave.
Albany, NY 12203

January 13 at 11:03am


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