Earlier this week, we released a publication looking at the education opportunities provided to the thousands of young people detained in juvenile detention each year. We found that as a general rule, the poor quality of education provided in most of these institutions makes it even harder for young people to get back on track.
That said, we acknowledge the serious research limitations surrounding juvenile facilities, including little survey data and outdated information. We could not even determine conclusively how many young people are sent to juvenile detention centers each year. So it is extremely difficult to understand any one young person’s education experience in these centers, and nearly impossible to confidently identify those detention centers that are providing high-quality services to young people and achieving positive outcomes.
We spoke with Randy Farmer, a long-time educator working in a juvenile detention facility, to paint a more complete picture of what happens in these centers and identify the good work going on that cannot be captured in a national aggregate analysis. (We also spoke with Randy in January of 2018.) There are many educators and school leaders deeply devoted to serving this population of students, and they too are frustrated by the limitations and challenges to providing high-quality education in detention centers.
The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
Randy: Generally speaking, the points you raise are spot on, but it’s really hard to talk about this very complicated issue, especially with an audience that might not be familiar with some of the challenges we face. There are important details that can be hard to see without working in a detention center and with these young people day in and day out. For example, it is not as though these young people just show up ready to learn and jump right back into a traditional school. They come with complex, often traumatic, personal histories, and many of them haven’t been going to school for years. Continue reading →
There are almost three million kids in alternative schools, secure facilities, or simply out of school and out of work — but they’re often the last thing on anyone’s mind. In a piece for Education Post, Andy Rotherham and I argue that “the opportunity to change the life trajectory for kids whose statistical chances are vanishingly small is also arguably the best bet in education reform that no one is making.”
We also have three big ideas for how philanthropists, people who care about equity, and innovators can change things tomorrow:
We should do better by these students because it’s the right thing to do to help them have a chance at a life with choices, purpose and self-determination. But there is a practical reason as well: Ignoring these students is an enormous missed opportunity because kids who aren’t well-served in traditional settings are not troublemakers, they’re the key to real change and a place to learn lessons that we can apply to the whole system.
Every time a reformer proposes a new idea in education, critics and skeptics demand evidence. Our state and federal laws prefer evidence-based practices and reward the adoption of practices backed by valid and reliable research. But when defending the status quo, no one ever seems interested in the evidence.
Last week’s Chicago Tribune piece on the disturbing use of “quiet rooms” as a behavior management strategy indicated that these euphemistically named rooms are in use across the state of Illinois. Children are routinely placed into isolation when they misbehave, under the pretense of behavior management or time to reflect. These rooms are isolation masquerading as quasi-in-school suspension, and there is, of course, no evidence to support them. In fact, the evidence runs in the opposite direction: “time-outs” actively harm children. That doesn’t seem to stop schools from using them.
A student in Utah sits alone outside his classroom. From Bellwether’s Rigged series.
Beyond the extreme example of Illinois’ “quiet rooms,” isolation and other exclusionary discipline practices are pervasive and, for many, noncontroversial. This includes suspensions and expulsions, which enjoy mainstream support from teachers and policymakers. Stories of suspension and expulsion don’t carry the same visceral horror as these examples from Illinois, but they’re all based on the same fundamentally flawed premise: that you can compel any individual to behave well by demanding obedience through force and deprivation.
As I recently wrote, I’ve spent the last two years leading a body of work here at Bellwether that focuses on the experiences of young people most affected by education fragmentation. These students are served by multiple public systems, change schools frequently, and may not have a single consistent adult to help them navigate a complex web of services and programs.
Our team has interviewed dozens of people directly impacted by these systems. While existing story collection efforts often require struggling people to be vulnerable in front of powerful strangers — which can sometimes cause unintended harm — we were committed to doing things differently.
Check out this behind-the-scenes footage to hear more from me on our approach:
Here are six key strategies we used to collect digital story materials while minimizing the burden on the storytellers:
You’ve read about Bellwether’s work in Utah, where we helped a team at the State Board of Education to develop a shared vision of quality for all their schools serving students in juvenile courts or the foster care system. And you’ve seen how our work in New Orleans resulted in an 18-month strategy to help the Youth Opportunity Center, part of the Orleans Parish School Board, evolve from a direct services provider to a community leader.
Our third partner in this work of ending fragmentation for youth was the El Dorado County Office of Education in California, where we partnered with leaders and stakeholders over 15 months to create a shared vision for improved countywide communication and information sharing. El Dorado County outperforms national averages on indicators of youth well-being as a whole, but it is also home to a population of young people unable to enjoy the County’s benefits. Our goal was to create a more coherent cross-agency experience for young people who come into contact with the County’s systems.
Atila, a young woman in El Dorado County, shared her story with us as we learned about how to better support young people. Atila now works with youth in one of the County’s juvenile facilities. Watch her story in the video below:
El Dorado County has many high-quality services, and there is, for the most part, enough to go around. But vulnerable young people and their families still struggle to thrive because of a lack of formal coordination between public agencies and community-based organizations, including courts, public safety agencies, behavioral health providers, and homelessness coordinators. Continue reading →