Juvenile justice system offers school progress — for select few

The education provided in the nation’s and New York’s juvenile justice systems has done more harm than good, according to a report released this week by the Southern Education Foundation.

The study, based on data from the 2010-’11 school year, found that just 39 percent of eligible students in juvenile justice facilities in New York State received any credits toward graduation while in detention and only 7 percent of long-term detainees earned a diploma or its equivalent while in detention.

Juvenile offenders in Shelby County, Tenn., attend school inside a detention facility. AP Photo/Alan Spearman

Juvenile offenders in Shelby County, Tenn., attend school inside a detention facility. AP Photo/Alan Spearman

Under an initiative from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York has begun to phase in significant reforms to juvenile detention for young people under age 16. Selected nonviolent offenders adjudicated in New York City’s family courts are now put in the custody of the New York City Administration for Children’s Services, instead of sent them to facilities upstate.

Included in that effort is closer integration with the New York City public school system to ensure that youth in detention earn credits that can carry over after they are released, and lead to graduation. Previously, students returned to their schools from detention facilities only to find in many cases that courses taken in detention did not count toward their graduation requirements.

But advocates for detained youth say that New York needs to disclose more information about how the young people are faring in the effort, which is known as Close to Home. What’s more, most young people in New York’s justice system will continue to be out of reach of the program.

In the year ending June 2013, ACS detained nearly 3,500 youths, the majority of whom were ineligible for Close to Home due to the nature of the offenses they have committed. While Close to Home is slated to be expanded to include young people who have committed certain more severe offenses, the majority of detained youth will remain in facilities outside of the city.

Close to Home participants live in small group homes in New York City run by private agencies under contract with ACS, and most are enrolled in Passages Academy, a program run by the city Department of Education.

According to a spokesperson for ACS, Christopher McKniff, Passages Academy served 302 Close to Home youth during the 2012-’13 school year, the first for the program.

“These first-year results from the Close to Home initiative are encouraging,” said McKniff. “Passages Academy is providing a strong educational experience and curriculum for these young people to advance academically.”

Youth advocates praise the progress that has been made so far under the Passages program. According to ACS, 98 percent of long-term students have earned credits toward graduation. 

All the same, they are asking ACS and DOE to disseminate more detailed data about how students are faring, revealing the school performance of specific groups at Passages Academy — among them students receiving special education services.

“It’s been very difficult for us to make any assessments because very little data has come out,” said Amy Breglio, Staff Attorney at Advocates for Children’s School Justice Project, a New York–based nonprofit.

Information about young people in detention and not enrolled at Passages, meanwhile, is even scarcer, she notes.

“The little data that we do have from Passages Academy shows that students are earning credits, but there are still some youth sent to agencies near the five boroughs and we have no data from those agencies,” said Breglio.

Among the obstacles to effective education in juvenile justice facilities, the Southern Education Foundation found, are a lack of timely assessments of students’ needs, inconsistency in curriculum, and ill-equipped teachers and facilities.

Breglio says she has seen some of this in New York.

“Anecdotally, we have heard service agencies are having difficulty getting information about the appropriate special education services for students,” said Breglio.

The city Department of Education did not responded to requests for comment.

David Domenici, executive director of the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings, a national organization, says that educating children in the juvenile justice system can actually present an opportunity.

“We have kids who have not done well in school, but, more or less, they have to come every day. They’re a captive audience,” said Domenici. “We can transform their perspective on school but the reality is education has been forgotten about.”

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