City sends juvenile delinquents on course to graduation

A young detainee at Highland Residential Center got As and Bs on his report cards - but no credit from the city Department of Education. Photo courtesy Times Herald-Record

Social workers who work with juvenile delinquents in New York City say it happens all the time: their teen charges go to school while in detention, but then find when they get out that their credits don’t count back in the city.

Now local school officials are looking to fix that, as part of the new initiative to house young detainees in the five boroughs instead of shipping them upstate. Starting this fall, the program, called Close to Home, will enable them to remain in the New York City public school system while incarcerated—and on the Department of Education’s credit system.

Mava Banton-Chambers of the Children’s Aid Society says the experience of one 16-year-old client is typical of what happens when detainees try to keep up with their school work while in state custody. (The organization does not disclose identities of its young charges.) Beginning last spring, he lived upstate at Highland Residential Center for seven months after an arrest for attempted robbery. He earned As and Bs in his math and writing classes while in juvenile detention.

Yet when he returned to the city this fall and enrolled in Manhattan’s Murry Bergtraum High School, only some of the high school credits he had earned upstate transferred to his New York City records. He was in ninth grade when he left, and he was in ninth grade when he came back.

“It’s just really frustrating for them,” said Banton-Chambers of the teens. This particular student is pressing ahead toward graduation despite the setback, she said. “He’s struggling a little bit, but he’s been making progress.”

But others give up and drop out before graduation. “We’re talking about kids that don’t have a lot of motivation as it is,” said Lisa Faro, program director at New York City’s Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services, an organization that helps young people and adults who have been involved with the courts transition back into society. “So when you take the one thing they do have and tell them it’s crap, they don’t really shoot for anything more.”

Currently, students sent to juvenile facilities run by New York State’s Office of Children and Family Services participate in education programs that operate on a different credit system than New York City public schools. The city Department of Education is looking to Close to Home as an opportunity to integrate juvenile delinquents back into the school system and build credits toward graduation, even while they are serving their detention.

“It’s going to be a much more seamless transition back to high school,” said Tim Lisante, superintendent of alternative schools for the Department of Education. “The credits they earn while in placement in detention go right onto their New York City transcript, so there’s no haggling once the student comes back.”

Like their public school counterparts, juvenile detainees will have at least five-and-a-half hours of instruction a day under Close to Home. But since they cannot leave their detention centers, the city has the flexibility to use time beyond the official school day for additional lessons. Students can partake in physical education and art in the evenings, on weekends and during school breaks. Students will receive credit for this work “when it’s appropriate,” according to Lisante.

“In the past, a lot of programs, 3 o’clock came and nothing happened,” he added, “but in this model, we’re really looking at an extended school day.”

City officials are also looking forward to faster transitions back into city schools after release. New York State law requires juvenile delinquents to return to school “in a timely fashion” after their release, which city and state officials have generally accepted to mean five days. Within that period, a student’s learning needs, credit transfers and behavior must all be assessed.

This process is extremely challenging, according to Ana Bermudez, deputy commissioner of juvenile operations at the city’s Department of Probation. When youth are in facilities hundreds of miles from the city, it becomes even harder.

Under Close to Home, said Lisante, city officials will start discussing immediately whether or not the juveniles want to return to their former schools. If the answer is no, they will begin making site visits to other possible schools while the juveniles are still incarcerated to better prepare them for the eventual move back.

“That’s one of the first questions we ask in orientation,” he said. “Is this the school you’re going to go back to? If it’s yes, we start making connections to that school to align the courses, and if it’s not, we pick a new one.”

The city’s Administration for Children’s Services, which oversees juvenile detention facilities in the city, anticipates offering a variety of education options for juveniles while they are incarcerated, according to spokeswoman Tia Waddy. Depending on their needs, some will attend schools within their detention facilities, some will attend separate schools with other juvenile delinquents, and some will eventually be able to attend community schools. All of these services will be provided through the city Department of Education.

The results remain to be seen, but Christopher Tan, director of Advocates for Children’s Juvenile Justice Project, says he’s optimistic about their chances for success.

“We still have to make sure that it’s done appropriately and that students are getting the right services while they’re there,” he said. “It has potential to be better for a lot of students, and early signs so far are promising.”

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