Juvenile Detention Education: 3 Success Stories

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This post is part of this month’s “What’s Going Right in Public Education” series, highlighting achievements and forward-thinking ideas happening now in education policy, law, and practice.

“In America, education is still the great equalizer.” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

Americans hold a nearly universal belief that education can be a “great equalizer.” Despite the problems with public education today, the belief that education can help overcome any obstacle still rings true. However, little attention is typically paid to the educational systems inside juvenile detention facilities, schools that attend to some of our nation’s most troubled youth.

Kids in detention facilities face a host of complications that traditional students usually don’t encounter: experience early in life with the criminal justice system, long periods of time away from family and friends, and (many times) low levels of prior academic achievement. Education could be the pathway toward a brighter, productive future. Instead, juveniles often encounter “alternative” schools with low or no academic expectations, teachers whose main goal is to “keep the peace” during school hours, and little or no opportunity for substantive learning or school credit.

A handful of folks who determined to change the way juvenile detention education operates have shown the nation the way schools in jails should work. The rest of this post will outline three inspiring stories of individuals who have helped kids caught up in the juvenile justice system get on the right track. Each story will be brief, but will include links to where to find additional information online.

The Maya Angelou Academy (See Forever School)

In 1997, James Forman, Jr. and David Domenici were fed up with the options for court-involved kids. They resigned from their jobs as attorneys in Washington, D.C., and set out to start a public school that actively pursued students who were involved with the juvenile justice system. The motivating force for Forman and Domenici was that juvenile prison seemed to be the only solution that existed at the time for many of their clients.

Forman and Domenici started small. They purchased a pizza delivery business in Northwest D.C. and told kids that if they came two hours each night for tutoring, they could work at the pizzeria and learn how to run a small business. Eventually, kids ran every aspect of the business. With a few months of success under their belts, as well as $50,000 raised by Reid Weingarten and current Attorney General Eric Holder, Forman and Domenici decided to open the See Forever School.

The idea to open a school for juvenile offenders was not a novel one. Many exist throughout the nation. The novel part of Forman and Domenici’s idea was to institute (what now seem like) common sense initiatives to benefit their students. They made their school day run from 9:30 AM until 8:00 PM. They continued to teach their students small business skills by running the pizzeria. They built individual and group counseling into the schedule. In their first year, they brought in sixty volunteer tutors and mentors to work with kids. A close culture was cultivated by eating meals together, having students “shout-out” great things their classmates were doing, and working closely with students’ families (when kids did great things and not so great things). Finally, Forman and Domenici wrote a project-based curriculum to make the academic ideas they were teaching seem more “real.”

In 1998, after their first successful year, Forman and Domenici chartered their school, made it open-enrollment, and renamed it (with the help of the kids) the Dr. Maya Angelou Academy.

However, Forman and Domenici weren’t done. Seeing the success of the See Forever School, the new head of Washington D.C.’s juvenile justice agency asked Forman and Domenici in November 2006 to run the school inside D.C.’s facility for juvenile delinquents. The pair took on the challenge. They faced a school with a notoriously negative culture, low teacher morale, and little motivation among students. Forman and Domenici started by hiring new, dedicated faculty. They made the school less drab. They cultivated an environment where students were “scholars” and academic achievement was rewarded and celebrated.

The most innovative change Forman and Domenici instituted was to create a curriculum broken up into “eight modular units” that awarded credits every month. Each unit had a new theme. The shorter units served two purposes. First, if kids didn’t understand a concept, they would only have to wait a few weeks until they could start fresh with a new unit. Second, kids are typically only housed in juvenile detention facilities for around nine months. Therefore, because kids come and go all year, a regular semester system wouldn’t allow kids to earn credits toward a high school diploma. A shorter grading unit would allow kids to continue to earn credits inside the prison school, and therefore their time would not have been a “waste.”

David Domenici and James Forman have written about their experiences in two new books. A chapter in Starting Up: Critical Lessons from 10 New Schools tells the story of the See Forever School (Dr. Maya Angelou Academy) in its first year. A chapter in Justice for Kids: Keeping Kids Out of the Juvenile Justice System tells the story of Forman and Domenici’s reform of D.C.’s juvenile detention facility.

Cook County Juvenile Probation Educational Advocacy Unit

Annie E. Casey Foundation’s JDAI HelpDesk provides a glimpse into Cook County’s success over the last several years in reducing the number of kids in their juvenile detention facilities:

Cook County recently achieved the lowest average daily population in its detention facility since its implementation of JDAI [Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative] in 1994 – reducing the number of youth from 750 to 287. In addition to a robust continuum of detention alternatives, Cook County offers a clinical division to limit the unnecessary detention of youth challenged with mental health and substance abuse issues. Evidence-based programming and the use of intermediate sanctions for technical violations of court orders, help to sustain reductions in detention. A Juvenile Advisory Council provides opportunities for youth input into policy and practice, while the Court and its juvenile justice system partners continue to emphasize community outreach and explore all viable options to provide pro-social opportunities for youth and their families.

What’s behind Cook County’s success? In 2006, Cook County created a special “Educational Advocacy Unit” (EAU) within the county’s Juvenile Probation Department. Donna Neal, who supervises the unit, spoke about the program and its impact at the March 2012 “Education Advocacy Conference” sponsored by Dallas JDAI and the Dallas Public Defender’s Office.

Field probation officers can refer juveniles to the new unit if one of the following conditions is met:

  • A significant history of out-of-school suspensions.
  • A current or pending school expulsion.
  • Indication that the student may have a disability and has not received services from the school.
  • The school is not providing necessary special educationa l services to the student.
  • The school is failing to implement the Individualized Educational Plan.

The EAU probation officers (called “Education Advocates”) create an Educational Report that includes all complications a student may have related to school, as well as solutions that will be sought by the Education Advocate and student. The Education Advocate also represents the student at school meetings and court hearings on issues related to schooling.

So far, Cook County EAU’s results have been shocking. And the reason the program has been so successful is because the program sets students up for success. The program provides a positive path forward that stands in stark contrast to a life of crime and poverty. JDAI has posted a presentation created by Cook County EAU that outlines some of the program’s early positive results.

Carroll Academy Lady Jaguars

The New York Times last week published a fascinating look inside a day school for female juvenile offenders in Carroll County, Tennessee. The school has taken a unique team-based approach to helping the troubled teens turn their lives around. Carroll Academy serves 80 girls, all who have been in trouble with the law. Many have substance abuse issues. Some are consistent truants. Only one child lives with her mother and father.

The purpose of the program is to rehabilitate the girls and prepare them to return to their home schools. The NY Times series focuses on Carroll Academy’s basketball team, made up almost entirely of girls who have never played or enjoyed sports in their lives, much less basketball. When one girl tests positive for drugs in the series’ first part, the girl is suspended from the team, but she is not kicked out school. The school is dedicated to truly changing lives, and it was refreshing to read that the school’s response wasn’t to tally another expulsion on the girl’s academic record.

The complete series was published last week in five parts. It is definitely worth reading–my summary here doesn’t do it the justice it deserves. You can start with Part 1 here.


The unifying theme in each of these stories is that a group of dedicated folks took action to restore the true and original purpose of the juvenile justice system: rehabilitation. Too often, juveniles are sentenced for mere punishment, with no attention paid to that child’s longterm wellbeing. Even though others may have given up on the students at the See Forever Schools, Cook County Juvenile Probation, or Carroll Academy, the actions taken by the heroes in the stories above have shown that kids, as troubled as they may be, are worth fighting for.

Read 3 comments

  1. Pingback: Juvenile Detention Education: 3 Success Stories | Children and the Law Blog | EDUCATION TODAY | Scoop.it

  2. It is great to see more people starting to understand the difference between rehabilitation and punishment. When it comes to juvenile facilities, the most important thing is that these children get a proper education. These children are not lost forever – they just need to be put in the right situation.

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