The View from Room 106

David Kendall Grant
November 17, 2000

Teenage boys enter my classroom. I am their teacher, but I have no records of their academic performance prior to the first day I meet them. These have been misplaced during their transfers from the Wrightsville prison to this facility: the Sumter Youth Development Campus. The boys are institutional—and educational—gypsies.

As they enter, they take off their shoes. I have already removed my own. The few moments it takes to them to do this help us shake off the problems outside the door and settle down. We spend a few minutes in a circle and catch up on the news, personal concerns, and the work ahead.

This is not a typical classroom. Rather than a desk, each student has a study carrel, with panels on the front and sides, cutting down on sound and visual distractions. Mounted on each carrel is a clipboard containing the day's assignment and the specific related pages copied from a textbook. When they finish, they can begin another from a folder in a file box designed just for them. At the end of 50 minutes they can play computer games, write a letter, or enjoy free reading for the final few minutes of class.

Special—and Angry

Despite the lack of actual academic records, each student does have an IEP—for Individual Educational Plan—folder, which documents his placement in special education. State officials estimate that 40 percent of the children in custody are special-education students. But it's easy to be special here: placements are made based on how the kids do on a standardized test of reading, spelling and math skills. The test is designed for adults and administered in a large, noisy hall. The results determine what courses they will take for the next year. But none of their coursework will give them credit towards a high school diploma, because the children's prisons of Georgia do not have an accredited school program. It's not too surprising that some students refuse to mark their answers to the test, or give random answers.

My students aren't easy to reach. In the past, if they have established a relationship with a teacher, they have been uprooted and moved soon after. This is nothing new in their lives. These are children who have been tossed from adult to adult. Their parents often cannot be reached. In many cases, their father is dead or in prison. Many have been used as sexual toys, abused by foster parents, confused by the chaos around them. Too often, when they approach puberty and their curiosity about sex overwhelms them, they follow the model their lives have provided, and violate a younger child.

Are they angry because they need special education or are they in special education because they are angry? They strike out, they throw things, and they fight. A fight is one of the only times when anyone holds them. I try to help and they push me away.

Telling Their Stories

The challenge of making a connection between their work and the world is the same for me, in prison education, as for a teacher outside. Many can't read. But they have stories to tell. The class newspaper that we produce is my key to unlocking their stories. I sit individually with a student. He tells me what he wants to say. I write it down. Other students, with better literacy skills, write down their own stories. We don't worry about spelling, run-on sentences, or anything else quite yet. Later, I enter each story into the computer, with the student sitting at my side. I read the story aloud. The writer makes changes, based on my questions and their own new and changing understanding.

We break up the stream of words into bite-size chunks, then into sentences, and paragraphs. Just hearing me read and gasp for air after a non-stop current of words is enough to achieve a belief in punctuation. Students lay their stories out on the screen, print and distribute the newspaper. Their joy in seeing people read what they write is my joy too.

Breaking the Rules

I struggle with the top-down control at the penitentiary. I have three new computers in my room. But I can't put any decent software on them unless I challenge the rules. These rules are not written in any state code, or gathered in some tidy handbook. They arrive in the form of periodically released memos. Everyone seems to know the rules, but no one can cite them. Everything must be approved by faceless technocrats in Atlanta. I must risk being fired to be able to do most of what I accomplish in my class.

Outside my door, there is chaos. Brawls break out in the hall and spill into my class. When class begins, students trickle in over a 20 minute period because of different breakfast times. Guards bang on the door to indicate the end of a class period. I can't believe how much I miss hearing the clang of a class bell!

Education takes a back seat to the system of rewards and punishments. On "Fabulous Fridays" students who "earn" enough points can spend all day watching movies, wrestling or other educational fare. So much for the law that demands 330 minutes of education per day. I do have the freedom to make my class different, for example by using the reinforcement of computer games for the last five minutes of class. But still some kids have complained that they have to do "too much" work in my room, and that they'd rather get their movies.

The "APE 'EM" room (alternative education placement) is supposed to be a time-out room for students who act out. But some children prefer it to the demands of my class, and demand to be sent there from the beginning. They know they will be able avoid tackling difficult assignments.

Our textbooks have sat on loading docks for months; their ruffled and moist pages show it. For my role in pushing to have the books replaced, an administrator threatened to take me out in the parking lot and beat me up for not going through proper channels. It's unbelievable. A past union representative, I have a newfound appreciation for the importance of good representation and solidarity.

The obsession with command and control concerns all who find themselves behind the walls of Georgia's children's prisons. Employees are afraid to act, because they could lose their jobs for blowing the whistle on bad practices. Children are manacled to chairs for hours. No one dares speak out. It's crucial that people outside get a picture of the juvenile justice education system in Georgia.

But let me describe a bright moment of victory. This last week a student left my class. He will soon leave special education altogether. This is unheard of. Since entering my class, after some initial problems, this 16-year-old has behaved impeccably, and produced very good academic work as well. At his most recent IEP meeting, the first he ever participated in, he expressed his concern that he could not obtain a regular diploma in prison, and spoke about how he has suffered academically from eight years in special education. The IEP team agreed with him. He is going to get his wish, and join the regular academic classes here, with help from me or another special education teacher. You should have seen his smile.

David Kendall Grant, P.h.D, teaches special-education students in Georgia's juvenile system. He has also taught special education with the Los Angeles County Office of Education in San Gabrial, California.