Education and Juvenile Hall

A number of years ago, the government famously passed a set of laws and standards called No Child Left Behind.  The goal was to make sure that education didn’t leave anyone off to the side or without access.  Noble goals, controversial application.  What is clear is that a lot of students had been left out and left behind, for various reasons not getting the same kind of education that so many others take for granted.

In her recent article in Boom, Anna Challet looks at where a lot of these “left behind” students end up, in juvenile detention centers of one kind or another.  Whether their lack of education led to committing crimes or their crimes led to their break from traditional schools, these young men and women are thrown into a new reality.  Their education must continue, the government says. The reality is, as it often is, much more complex, alternately discouraging and inspirational.  Challet  highlights both elements, noting the problems and the ways the system fails while pointing out some transformative possibilities even in these seemingly worst of circumstances.

This story hits close to home. Not because I spent time in juvie, but because my dad did for quite a long time. He was a teacher in court schools and juvenile halls, starting at a boys home in the late 1980s, where my family lived on campus for about a year, before moving across the street.  During my gap years between seminary degrees I spent a lot of time working on material he could use, and so while I never directly taught in these classrooms, I was radically shaped by learning dynamic pedogogy and their stories.

Because of my dad’s long active teaching and dynamic development of adaptive pedagogy for these contexts, I sent him Challet’s article and asked him what he thought.  He gave me permission to post his reply:

Ever since the enactment of Public Law 107-11 in 2002 (NCLB), and especially The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA), there have been a plethora of similar findings and reports published through recent years. These are usually created by law firms that specialize in defending the rights of children in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Youth Law Center is one of these and is cited by Anna Challet in this article. Youth advocacy organizations are extremely valuable and much needed to assure that NCLB and IDEA are followed.


Anna Challet’s assertion that “kids in court schools have high aspirations for what they want to do with their lives … They’re hungry to learn, and the system meets them with low expectations” reveals a wonderful idealism on her part, but mostly it highlights her scant experience and knowledge of the juvenile incarcerated population and the highly skilled teachers who interact with them daily.

She presents findings, anecdotes, and a couple of apparently effective at-risk youth intervention models that seems fair and somewhat balanced, though skewed to reflect her bias and activism: One young lady complains that the curriculum was below her academic level and none of the credits that she earned “appear on her transcripts.” The young lady earned HS credits, but typically may not have mentioned that she had spent time in a juvenile court facility when she returned to her regular high school.

Challet then tells of a young man who seemed to benefit from his court school experience and earned “the most credits he’d ever gotten in any school”. The latter, I believe, was the most common re-occurring reflection that I heard in the 25+ years that I taught at-risk and incarcerated youth.


By law and WASC (Western Association of Schools and Colleges) the academic delivery model in court schools must correspond to that which is found in all California pubic secondary schools. The difficulty is that current data indicates that at least 70% of minors in the juvenile justice system have educational, social, and emotional disabilities along with 2nd to 4th grade English literacy skills.

Due to years of neglect and absence of timely and appropriate intervention these 12-18 year olds have little chance of above minimal success in our present economic setting. According to a current report 6,027 juveniles are arrested each day in the United States. If this number of young people were infected with a fatal disease each day, an entire network of governmental health agencies would unquestionably mount an aggressive response to combat this widespread pandemic.

It seems apparent that incarcerated court school students are part of a “mass casualty incident” and potentially two-thirds of them may spend the remainder of their lives in dismal disparagement based on current rates of recidivism. There needs to be an academic emergency response protocol which would address this situation in an effective and efficient manner.

It is my opinion that the time adolescents spend in a juvenile court school should be viewed as a catastrophic event and, as such, the response a metaphor to that of medical emergency triage with its established protocol and rehabilitation program. The identification procedure, the pedagogical model, and the program of long-term intervention implemented should take the form of triage; in this case, academic triage.

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