By Lynette N. Tannis
If I were to say that every child in our nation deserves a high-quality education, I don’t think there would be many to refute my statement.
Yet as a nation, we haven’t spent much time ensuring incarcerated youth also have options to receive high-quality education programs. In 2011, The National Evaluation and Technical Assistance Center for the Education of Children and Youth who are Neglected, Delinquent or At-Risk reported that only 65 percent of our nation’s approximate 2,700 juvenile justice facilities offer an educational program for all of their incarcerated youth.
Through research and speaking with hundreds of incarcerated youth over the past six years, most shared that negative school experiences led to them either dropping out or being forced out of school. Juvenile justice educators must ensure that they continue to provide the high-quality education programs incarcerated youth need for successful reentry to their communities, as contributing members of society.
Now, some of you may be saying, “Wait a minute! Before we focus on juvenile delinquents, let’s make sure all our regular schools have what they need for students to be successful.” It is important to keep in mind that students who end up in our juvenile justice system were at one time or currently are, enrolled in traditional public schools, charter public schools or private schools.
We all have myriad definitions of what “high-quality” looks like. While some advocate for supporting just traditional public schools, others advocate for expanding choice with options like magnet and charter schools. And while having options doesn’t automatically guarantee improved learning environments for students, it can at least offer families an alternative if their neighborhood schools aren’t serving them well.
Children with poor school experiences are more likely to drop out of school, causing a downward trajectory – nearly 75 percent of dropouts end up incarcerated. Moreover, in many of our nation’s low-income, high-need urban districts, the probability of attending excellent schools is significantly reduced, further increasing the likelihood of incarceration.
As a society, it is our responsibility to ensure that every child is provided with the tools they need to be successful, in school, career, and life. Perhaps that is a bit idealistic, but I don’t think we would accept anything less if it were our own children.
It is the responsibility of schools and communities to ensure that students in detention centers and long-term residential facilities have successful reentries to society—and the most important means of achieving successful reentry is by providing incarcerated youth a high-quality education.
Public charter schools began and exist to offer families and students educational choice and innovation. They also serve as healthy competition for traditional public and private schools. Certainly, with all this choice, we are increasing the odds for more student success within our schools, so that fewer may end up incarcerated.
Several charter schools nationally provide education programs for incarcerated youth. These include the Gulf Coast Trades Center/Raven School, a Texas independent charter school established in 1998, and the New Beginnings/Maya Angelou Public Charter School, created in 2007 to provide a high-quality education for Washington D.C.’s incarcerated youth. Additionally, in November 2014, the Oklahoma State Board of Education approved a new charter school plan for two juvenile detention centers.
We must continue to explore more high-quality options across the nation for students who are currently confined, including high-performing charter schools that serve incarcerated youth.
All of our schools, across the United States are challenging in some way. It is imperative for each school’s leadership to be clear about and provide what is needed for each student to be successful and to celebrate the students’ and school’s successes. Moreover, school leadership teams must also ensure that every student in their school is receiving the high-quality education to which they are entitled.
Our children and society deserve our best – and that means ensuring every student within our sphere of influence receives the high-quality education they deserve, starting in kindergarten, to ensure they are able to read and comprehend text at or above grade level, that they are both college and career ready, and that they fully understand their roles as global citizens.
There is much work to be done, but like many of the inventions and breakthroughs in this country, we must first envision it, believe this is a priority, and take the necessary steps to bring this to fruition.
Lynette N. Tannis began her career as an educator 19 years ago. She has served in myriad capacities in traditional and charter school settings, including classroom teacher, literacy coordinator, and school/district administrator. For the past six years, Lynette has been researching juvenile justice education and recently published: Educating Incarcerated Youth: Exploring the Impact of Relationships, Expectations, Resources and Accountability. As an independent education consultant, some of her work includes the provision of principal coaching and leadership support for the Center for Excellence in Alternative Settings (CEEAS).