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A lot to be thankful for, lots more work to be done

I still remember the first time I went out to Oak Hill, the youth correctional center for Washington, D.C., on Thanksgiving. That was back in 2007. I had been on the job as the school principal at Oak Hill for just a few months. My children were 18 months old. My wife and I pushed them around in a stroller as we stopped by the units to say hello and wish the young men a happy Thanksgiving.
As we drove back to DC, our twins nodded off to sleep in their car seats, and I kicked myself for leaving one kid by patting him on the back and blithely saying, “Have a great holiday and I’ll see you on Monday.” He shook his head and muttered back, “You don’t get it, do you.” I knew he wasn’t going to have a great holiday. How could he, locked up, away from his family, on his own? But the words had just slipped out.
Just a few hours later, we were celebrating Thanksgiving at our home. My kids were joined by two sets of grandparents, a handful of cousins, and a whole bunch of friends. Before we sat down to eat, we formed a circle, held hands, and went around and shared what we were thankful for. I was overwhelmed by the contrast between Thanksgiving at our home and the Thanksgiving that the young men at Oak Hill were experiencing. I was thankful to be free, to be surrounded by people who loved me.
In two days, my family and I will head out to the New Beginnings Youth Development Center, which was built four years ago to replace the infamous Oak Hill. This will be the seventh year we have made that Thanksgiving visit. This year, my kids will walk on their own—they are big eight-and-a-half-year-olds now. I will only know a few of the guys out there—I left the principalship two years ago—which will make our conversations awkward and somewhat stilted. But we’ll try to connect. (We’re thinking about hosting a spades tournament, knowing that no one is going to want to lose to a couple of little kids.)
Afterwards, we’ll once again head home. The drive back will be sober and difficult. As my children have gotten older, they’ve started to ask harder questions. Daddy, can you tell me again how come all of the boys there are black? How do their families come visit them for Thanksgiving if they don’t have a car? How come they can’t go home for Thanksgiving? Is that where you met your friend Daniel? How come he had to go out there? And my wife and I will do our best to answer them.
And then, a few hours later, we will all join hands once again. I’ll look across the circle and give thanks once again for having the chance to build a meaningful life, to be supported by those who love and care for me. But inside, I’ll know that there is so much work to be done. Just so, so much hard work has to take place so that one day there won’t be any young men at New Beginnings on Thanksgiving, and we won’t make our drive out to visit.
As the holiday season approaches, this newsletter is dedicated to everyone who is working day to day to end the practices and policies that lead us to have way too many young people—most of whom are poor, who grow up in isolated, segregated communities and attend our nation’s worst schools—locked up, hidden away, unable to be with their loved ones over the holidays.
Below, we highlight a number of good things happening at the intersection of juvenile justice and education reform, share samples from essays that incarcerated students wrote as part of Untold Stories, and highlight a few projects we are working on to help alleviate some of the pain and hopelessness that so many young people feel.
Here’s to a peaceful Thanksgiving to all of you, and the hope of better Thanksgivings ahead for all of the students we serve.

Good news from the field

Updates from our Consortium states: In October, we sponsored our second annual retreat for the education directors of the eleven states in our Consortium for Educational Excellence in Secure Settings: Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Missouri, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, and Utah. It was great to be around a tight-knit group of professionals who are committed to improving educational outcomes for youth in their care. Below, we describe a few of the groundbreaking initiatives that Consortium members have launched. 

  • Indiana Division of Youth Services (DYS): School Report Cards. By integrating its student information system with Indiana’s statewide teacher evaluation tool, DYS created school report cards for each of the schools in its secure facilities. The report cards provide real-time information to teachers, principals, and agency leadership on how each school is doing on three primary measures: Collecting Data, Responding to Data, and Student Outcomes. The report cards are a terrific tool—on par, we believe, with what the most reform-minded school districts in the country are using to support teachers and school leaders and hold them accountable for results. Although it has only been using the report cards for about six months, DYS is already noticing real progress. “It’s amazing to see principals respond to the report cards,” notes Susan Lockwood, Director of Juvenile Education. “At first, the principals were not happy with their initial grades, but now what they are focused on is improving, and that’s leading them to really dig in with their staff.” We applaud Dr. Lockwood for her leadership in this effort. If you are interested in learning about school report cards, you can contact her directly.
  • Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD): Leadership Initiative. Amy Lopez, Superintendent of Education for TJJD, used Edmodo to develop a Leadership Training program for principals overseeing schools in secure settings. By posting assignments, offering suggested readings, and initiating online conversations, Amy supports school leaders who are otherwise isolated in facilities scattered around the state. And she has done this without buying (or waiting for approval to buy) an expensive software package or fancy communication tool. Instead, she used her creativity, technical savvy, and determination to build out a terrific platform that works for her. Way to go, Amy! If you want to learn more about how she is using technology to promote leadership, feel free to contact Amy directly.
  • Missouri Division of Youth Services: Teacher Observation and Evaluation Tool. Missouri DYS is known for its small, treatment-oriented facilities—and for its terrifically low recidivism rates. Its schools are often overseen by the facility directors, not by principals. In order to improve the capacity of facility directors to offer targeted, meaningful support for teachers, Missouri developed an observation tool uniquely tailored to its instructional priorities, trained facility directors on the new instrument, and began using it this fall to support and evaluate teachers. Developing this tool is just one example of Missouri DYS’ commitment to ongoing improvement—a commitment that has kept it at the forefront of efforts to build a youth rehabilitation system that really works. For more information about this initiative, feel free to contact Education Coordinator Scott Smith.
E-mentoring program. This fall, we launched an e-mentoring program that matches up experienced teachers and principals with novice teachers and principals. Our goal was to address the isolation so many educators say is a major impediment to retaining high-quality staff at schools in youth detention and correctional settings. In addition to facilitating one-on-one support by phone, email, and text messaging, the program guides participants through a year-long professional development curriculum and engages them in online discussion forums on the Edmodo platform. We are excited about the progress of the mentoring program and are looking for ways to improve and expand it. To learn more, please contact Kat Crawford (teachers) or Lynette Tannis (principals). 

Untold Stories

Richard Ross, whose photography collection Juvenile in Justice offers chilling glimpses of life inside our nation’s youth detention and correctional settings, invited us to partner with him on a writing and visual arts project. Richard was hoping to publish a follow-up book that would highlight student essays and accompanying artwork. He wanted us to design a project that would encourage young people to tell their own stories.
Following on the success of Words Unlocked, our nationwide poetry project, we created Untold Stories, a learning initiative for youth in secure settings. We developed a 10-day curriculum to elicit the sort of writing that Richard was looking for—contextualized, personal, and real. We developed materials that encouraged creativity and originality, but also provided support and instructional strategies to help students address their academic weaknesses and build on their strengths.
What we got back from students was impressive and powerful: well-written, authentic essays that transcended stereotypes about incarcerated youth. More than 200 students submitted essays and accompanying artwork to us. We’ve highlighted some of these materials online; you can access them here. Selected submissions will also appear in Richard Ross’s forthcoming collection, Juvie Talk, expected to be published in the spring of 2014.
Many of the students wrote about universal themes: love, belonging, redemption, overcoming obstacles, taking control of your life, saying you’re sorry. But often their stories were haunted by violence and tragedy, reminding us of the traumatic experiences so many young people in the juvenile justice system have confronted.

One student wrote of being rescued by a complete stranger who saw her rummaging for food in the dumpster of a local gas station at the age of six. She credits the loving kindness of that stranger and her foster care family for saving her.
When I was six years old I met a man at a gas station who changed my life. I’m not sure if it was the sight of me digging through the dumpster that caught his eye, or a naked six year old, but I remember the man well. It shocked me he was polite; never had a grown man ever been nice to me. I’m guessing he’d never seen a kid looking for food in a dumpster, much less a naked one.
Another student shared a searing account of his years in the foster care system:
The pain was indescribable and I remember vividly running away almost every night in search of my parents even though they were in a whole other country. I would jump out the bathroom window on frigid nights when the staff left the window open. I would see this as an opportunity to escape and reunite myself with my family. There was a road about a mile long with woods on each side, this road lead from the group home to the main road. I would get about three-fourths of the way to the road before headlight appeared behind me. I would take off running as fast as my little legs would take me, trying to outrun the vehicle in pursuit. It was almost the same outcome every time. I would get scooped up by the staff and brought back to that dreaded place.
More than one student wrote about the lure of heroin and its controlling power:
It was my breath, life, happiness, best friend, worse friend, worse enemy and downfall . . . Without it I was nothing. Without it I went senseless. With it, I was insane. With it, I was fierce. With it I was the maker of my own defeat. I was weak, and helpless. I was nothing.
Others shared their struggles with wrenching sadness and depression. One student told of waking up in the hospital after nearly taking his own life: “I remember being depressed . . . very depressed. I also remember getting vodka and the razor blade.”
Several talked about abuse, violence, and self-hatred.
The room was small—only one bed, one table, two chairs and a T.V. The bathroom was even smaller. I spent seven days in there, locked up in this place like a hut. Day one, not so bad, got shot up with half a gram, hit in the head with a baseball bat, and kicked in the ribs with a size 13 foot and shoe, kidnapped and beat black and blue. Watched a women get the shit beat out of her, too. Day two only got worse, no food and shot up with another two, hit some more, only this time got told I was a dirty whore. The little hotel bathroom was the only thing I saw in that tiny hotel room. I went in and out of consciousness, never knew what day it was, lost track of time, only went out in the middle of the night to get ice… I got away with bruises and lumps. Nothing was what I would've called a triumph. Kidnapped and beat, shot up and starved—all these things I never knew. Now I have scars to show. I don't know how I got out, but somehow I lived through. It made me feel sick, made me feel blue, made me feel like a bitch who was only there to be used.
One student reflected back on his choices and shared his realization that although we are all imperfect, each of us has the power to choose our own destiny: “We are like roses, and life is like dirt. Each of us goes through a lot of dirt to get to the place we want to be. And you can either choose to be sad that every rose has a thorn, or you can be grateful that every thorn possesses a rose.”
We are deeply grateful to the students for their bravery and honesty in sharing their stories. And we hope their work will inspire greater efforts to reform the juvenile justice system in ways that enable young people to pursue their education, receive the rehabilitative services they need, and go on to lead rewarding lives.
To read full selections from Untold Stories, click here.  
All of the selections in the online publication will be recorded by Spyhop, a nonprofit that is working with students at two Utah juvenile justice facilities (Decker Lake and Wasatach) to produce a podcast featuring the Untold Stories essays. To listen to one of the Untold Stories, click here. We look forward to sharing the rest of them with you soon. 

Upcoming Holidays

The holiday season is quickly approaching. We are working on two projects to give young people who are locked up an opportunity to share, give thanks, and combat their feelings of loneliness and isolation during the holidays.
Holiday Card Exchange. The Holiday Card Exchange is a one-day project in which students learn about holiday customs and celebrations worldwide, and then create cards that incorporate a variety of cultural perspectives. Participants engage in a card exchange with students at another school. If you work in a school in a secure setting and are interested in the Holiday Card Exchange, please fill out this survey. We will match you with a school in a secure setting of similar size. If you have any questions, please contact Kat Crawford.
Holiday Book Recording Project. The Holiday Book Recording Project provides an opportunity for students to send a recording of themselves reading a holiday book aloud to a young child—maybe their own child, a younger sibling at home, or children at a nearby daycare center. Click here to listen to a sample by a former scholar at the Maya Angelou Academy. CEEAS will partner with individual schools to facilitate this process, which has three steps:
  • Supporting scholars in choosing a book to read and record as a gift for a young child
  • Recording the scholar reading the book aloud
  • Mailing both a CD of the reading and the actual book to the child the book is dedicated to
If you are a teacher or principal interested in signing up for the Holiday Book Recording Project, please click here.  

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