Tag Archives: incarcerated youth

Do Incarcerated Youth Have Equal Access to Education? Let’s Look at the Data.

Although we regularly assess student learning and evaluate the effectiveness of teachers in traditional schools, there is almost no hard data on the quality of education in the schools that serve students held in juvenile justice facilities. These facilities tend to only collect data focused on safety and security. What kind of education do these students receive?

Based on the first year of available data from the U.S. Civil Rights Data Collection, we conducted a national analysis to answer some simple questions:

  1. How many youth are enrolled in juvenile justice schools across the U.S.?
  2. To what degree do they have access to math and science courses (the only courses on which we have data)?
  3. How often do they enroll in these courses?

What we encountered on the way – before even answering the latter two questions – was troubling.

At the start of our analysis, we needed to set up a rudimentary fact base. How many juvenile justice schools are there in each state, and how many kids are enrolled in each? Basic questions, it would seem. Thankfully, the U.S. Department of Education collects public school enrollment nationally. In the 2013-14 data set, the first one made available, they decided to include juvenile justice schools in their definition of “public.” After adding up the number of students in juvenile justice schools for each state, we found that the number was suspiciously low. For example, Arkansas reported only six students enrolled in one juvenile justice school – in the entire state. South Carolina reported no juvenile justice schools at all.

We found it hard to believe that only six students were incarcerated in all of Arkansas, so we compared the enrollment data to another data set – the number of incarcerated youth in each state for the year 2013. If all was well in the world of data quality and educational access, we would expect the data sets to somewhat align, meaning the number of enrolled youth would account for about 100% of incarcerated youth. That, in turn, would give us a fairly accurate picture of educational opportunity for incarcerated youth in each state.

However, we found that in the majority of states, the enrollment numbers of juvenile justice schools didn’t remotely match up with the number of incarcerated youth for the same time frame. In only 18 states did the number of enrolled students somewhat account for the number of youth in placement (that is account for 70% – 130% of youth). In the other states, that alignment ranged from 0% (South Carolina) to 940% (Delaware). 940% means that way, way more youth were reported enrolled in juvenile justice schools than actually incarcerated. What seems mathematically impossible is more likely the result of schools being mislabeled as serving incarcerated youth or schools reporting cumulative enrollment (how many kids enrolled in a year) instead of snapshot enrollment (how many kids were attending school on one day).

Without accurate data, it’s hard to make state-by-state comparisons about access to education in these facilities. Good data matters. Without it, we don’t know whether the thousands of kids who are reported as incarcerated, but not enrolled in a school, are actually getting an education. They deserve better.

Check out our other findings in the full slide deck, Measuring Educational Opportunity in Juvenile Justice Schools.

Alexander Brand was an intern at Bellwether in the spring of 2018.

Will Educators Lead Incarceration Reform?

Hundreds of thousands of people are released from state or federal prison every year, and nine million more leave local jails.  On the whole, very few people serve life sentences, and at least 95% of prisoners ultimately return home. 

In 2016, the Obama administration designated the last week of April as “National Reentry Week,” an attempt to bring public attention to the challenges facing people who return to their communities after incarceration. It doesn’t look like the Trump administration is upholding the designation — the Department of Justice’s site was archived — but last month, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos unexpectedly visited a youth correctional facility. There she spoke about the role that high-quality education programs play in supporting successful transitions back to community life.

It’s time that educators took the lead in creating substantive policies to support previously incarcerated people as they rejoin their communities. For young people, the move from a secure school back to a community-based program is a crucial moment when students are at risk of losing their earned course credits, experiencing barriers to enrollment, and dropping out entirely. I’ve recently shared data on the importance of this transition. And, for the first time in history, this moment is called out in federal education law: The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to develop plans to support that transition. And not only is it in the law,  it even made it into the final federal template:

Screenshot via U.S. Department of Education ESSA template.

While this is big, we should also recognize that progress could be bolder; this section will not be evaluated in the official peer review process, and the guidance says simply that it “will be reviewed by staff at the Department.”

And the news coming out of states suggests that they aren’t taking full advantage of this opportunity either. Of the plans submitted so far, most describe goals and strategies for transition plans that are cursory and vague (or both). One describes a committee that is planning to develop a plan. Another gives staffing levels that are woefully insufficient to meet the need — one transition specialist for an entire agency. Almost all describe a lack of good assessment tools to properly track achievement. Of course, doing something is better than nothing. But the problem has rarely been that states are truly doing nothing, it’s that what they are doing doesn’t work. Researchers estimate that upwards of 60 percent of young people who are incarcerated will never successfully return to school.

This opens a unique opportunity for state education advocates to push their education leaders to do more. DeVos’s visit, coupled with the explicit language in ESSA and in the federal template, suggests that this discussion — long relegated to the dusty corners of corrections reform — may have finally, firmly found a foothold in federal education policy.

We Need Real Education Transition Policies for Incarcerated Students

Last month, I gave testimony before the California Senate Education Committee on SB 304, a bill to define the required elements of an education transition plan for a student leaving a juvenile court school and returning to a community-based school. Current California law requires agencies to coordinate a transition plan but doesn’t specify what needs to be in that plan. Some jurisdictions have developed robust policies and practices supporting integrated service provision and continuous care, but many have not, leaving already marginalized students to fend for themselves when their education is disrupted.

The outcomes aren’t good: incarcerated ninth graders may eventually return to school in their communities but within a year of re-enrolling, an estimated two-thirds to three-fourths drop out. After four years, less than fifteen percent of them will complete high school. Aside from hurting these students’ lives and opportunities, this pattern destabilizes communities, creates a drag on our economy, and affects the outcomes for the next generation of young people.

This bill defines the elements of a transition plan, including the most basic expectations like a portfolio of documents that includes current transcripts and results of academic assessments. Conveniently, this bill aligns perfectly with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which now requires states to provide transition plans that assist students moving from correctional facilities to locally operated schools. Continue reading

XQ Prize-Winning School Will Provide Educational Continuity for Disconnected Youth

RISE High, which just won $10 million in the XQ high school redesign competition, was created to address the unique needs of students facing disruptive life circumstances.

School instability is one of the biggest educational issues facing youth who experience crises like homelessness, foster care placement, or incarceration. These youth often miss school frequently and switch schools repeatedly, and, subsequently, they face diminished long-term academic outcomes.

Screen Shot 2016-09-16 at 4.49.34 PMThere are a number of things that schools and districts can do to facilitate attendance and consistency for students whose educations are severely disrupted — things like rerouting school buses, sharing data across agencies, implementing wraparound services, and utilizing competency-based education — but few truly solve the physical challenge of getting students to and from school every day.

Until now. RISE High will have several physical sites, an online learning system, and a mobile resource center. Students will have the option to attend any one of the school’s physical or virtual sites, helping ensure students can access the day’s lessons and/or tutoring regardless of where they may be. The physical sites will be co-located with service providers, and the mobile unit will be equipped with hygiene products, cell phone chargers, and Internet access to solve some of the basic — and often overlooked — challenges these students face.

But RISE High will do more for these students than just meet them where they are physically. Because it is one school, it eliminates many of the common barriers that highly transient students face. Students will be able to maintain consistent enrollment in a single school but attend multiple sites—rather than un-enroll and re-enroll in a new school with each move. Students will not risk losing credits due to course incompatibility between schools or districts. Instead, RISE High will provide each student with a personalized learning plan and allow them to earn credit upon mastery of a unit. This type of competency-based learning can be powerful for students whose life circumstances make it challenging to regularly attend a traditional school with seat-time requirements. And students will have a single record of their coursework rather than a complicated file cobbled together by many schools over time, which can help facilitate high school graduation and postsecondary enrollment.

RISE High has incredible potential to increase the continuity and consistency of the school experiences of youth whose educations have been severely disrupted. With greater consistency comes greater educational success, and, ultimately, more promising life outcomes.

Too Many States Are Celebrating a “Better than Nothing” Education for Incarcerated Students

Alabama made news this week with their announcement about a possible and massive new jail-based education program for incarcerated 17-21 year olds. Administered by Athens City Schools, this program would offer students access to high school content provided by the for-profit online content service Grade Results.

laptop-1176606_1920But Grade Results is not an accredited education provider. They cannot legally award high school credits or diplomas. They also cannot offer students transferable college credits. But by coordinating the virtual program through the district and classifying students as enrolled in a district school, those students can earn high school credits and be awarded an official Athens City Schools diploma from an accredited school upon completion — as if they had actually attended the physical school.  Even though they didn’t.

Sound bogus to you? It is. Continue reading