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For students with juvenile justice involvement, better options lead to more diplomas

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

From the time Quad’ir Ford was an infant, he was practically on his own.

Both of his parents were in and out of prison throughout his childhood, and when he was a teenager, his mother died. At 13, Ford was arrested for robbery and sent to Glen Mills School, a residential placement facility for court-adjudicated youth. Though Glen Mills served as a punishment, Ford – who had already been through so much struggle and instability – also saw it as a comfort.

“Waking up at 6 in the morning, having three meals a day plus snack and stuff like that,” said Ford. “Where I come from, it’s hard to get three meals a day.”

Ford has been sent to some of the state’s most well-known juvenile placement facilities, like George Junior Republic and Alternative Rehabilitation Communities. He has spent a little over three years of his life in placement, but now this soft-spoken 19-year-old is a senior at YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School and is on track to graduate in June.

YouthBuild is an accelerated diploma program that helps over-age and under-credited students earn their diplomas while gaining hands-on job skills and training. Ford said he decided to go when his aunt and uncle, alumni of the school, suggested it may be a good fit because of its focus on job skills.

“I really like it here,” said Ford. “It really opened my eyes to new things and learning new things, trying to network and to become the person that I need.”

According to a recent Policy Lab Report, at least 17 percent of Philadelphia students have had juvenile justice or child welfare involvement. Historically, graduation rates for these groups of students – as well as other subpopulations, such as teen moms and those living in foster care – have been low. These students have dealt with difficult life circumstances and sometimes exposure to trauma, a condition in children’s lives that experts say can go far in explaining the root cause of the dropout crisis.

A decade ago, students in juvenile placement were lucky if they even graduated high school. One main problem was that there were very few programs available that provided nontraditional paths to a diploma.

For the programs that did exist, inadequate systems made it difficult to connect these students with information about available options. So students and their families didn’t know how to deal with the transition between a placement facility and a prospective school. Lack of communication between organizations and departments at the state and district level allowed students to fall through the cracks due to administrative issues such as non-transferable credits and curriculum misalignment.

Given these obstacles to getting re-engaged, many students felt it was just easier to drop out.

Today, more students coming from juvenile justice placement are graduating high school. A 2015 report commissioned by Project U-Turn, called “A Promise Worth Keeping,” showed that the graduation rate for youth with juvenile justice involvement more than doubled from 16 percent for the cohort that started in 9th grade in 2002 to 36 percent for the 2008 cohort of 9th graders.

Increasing students’ options

Courtesy YouthBuild
One reason for the increase in graduation rates among students with juvenile justice involvement is the availability of more options to get these students back on a path to securing their diplomas.

About 10 years ago, initiatives regarding re-engagement of at-risk youth became a top priority for Philadelphia – and for good reason.

Ariesha Geier, director of case management at YouthBuild, said that advocates from all parts of the social justice, education, youth development, and juvenile justice sectors noticed a connection between the dropout crisis and many of the city’s other problems.

“We started looking at the numbers of students or young people who weren’t being successful, and it was like, ‘what we are doing is not working,’” Geier said.

“Probation officers have always felt like if we can get young people involved in something, they do better. But having programs available, I think, was a challenge,” she said.

To remedy the problem, the School District of Philadelphia launched the Multiple Pathways to Graduation programs – which today fall within the responsibilities of the Opportunity Network office – and opened more alternative schools and accelerated programs for off-track and out-of-school youth.

In 2009, the District also opened two transitional schools: Philadelphia Learning Academy North (PLAN) and Philadelphia Learning Academy South (PLAS). Both are designed for students who are coming out of juvenile justice placements or who need more services and supports to keep them on track to graduation. Most students coming out of the juvenile justice system now go to one of these two schools when they first return to the Philadelphia School District.

For some, like Ford, who attended PLAN before transitioning to YouthBuild, going to a PLA eases the transition from the juvenile justice system to one of the District’s alternative programs because of the smaller class sizes, more personalized attention, and opportunity for students to focus on the future rather than reflecting on past missteps.

Judges will often require that students coming out of placement spend a minimum amount of time – typically about 60 days – at a PLA before transferring to an alternative school if the student wishes to go somewhere else after leaving the PLA. But many students stay at the PLA for the rest of their high school years and graduate from there.

The PLAs offer blended learning models, which combine structured classrooms and personalized learning strategies. The classes consist of 5 to 12 students, with a second teacher for any class that has more than 10 students. Students in these schools are able to make up missing credits by taking one class at a time on the school’s computer-based A+ credit recovery program. The A+ credit recovery classes are tailored to individual students’ needs, and there are teachers on standby in case a student needs help. The schools also have more comprehensive counseling services available to students.

Nalik Lark-Hightower, 18, bounced around to various high schools and spent 20 months in two juvenile placement facilities before enrolling at PLAS about four months ago.

When she got to PLAS, she worked with principal Darryl Blackwell and program manager Ngoc Nguyen to figure out what holes existed in her transcript and how she could make up the 5.5 credits she needed to graduate. Lark-Hightower said the school’s personalized attention was something that helped motivate her to stay at PLAS and focus on graduating.

“They figured out a way to do it so that if I can stay focused and really work hard, I could graduate this June,” she said.

According to many students, the environments at the PLAs give them more guidance and support than a traditional school. Lark-Hightower said that this is why more kids are staying “out of trouble.”

“There is always someone around to help you out if you want it,” she said.

Reworking the system

In addition to having more nontraditional options for students coming out of placement, there has also been an overhaul in the last five to 10 years in the system that moves these students out of placement and back into a learning environment.

The Pennsylvania Academic and Career/Technical Training (PACTT) initiative was created out of lessons learned from the Philadelphia Reintegration Initiative, a collaborative campaign that focused on reforming the juvenile justice system’s aftercare programs. Launched in 2008 by Candace Putter, based on her extensive experience working with troubled teens, PACTT led the effort to streamline the process of transitioning students from juvenile placements to educational options.

At that point, many things needed to be fixed. Records and transcripts were not shared between the local school districts and the placements, leaving both guessing at a newly received student’s academic history. The education that students received at the placements did not align with the requirements and curriculum in District schools, diminishing the progress made in placement. Additionally, the credits that students received in placement were rarely accepted by their local school districts, forcing students to repeat classes and creating a frustrating and demoralizing process that often led students to simply give up.

“There were so many problems connecting kids back to school,” said Marna Goodman, who served as director of operations for PACTT.

“So some of the most basic things we did was kind of build better pathways of communication and make the curriculum standard and accepted, and that was really a lot harder than you could ever have possibly imagined that it would have been.”

Getting all of the necessary individuals, departments, and institutions to agree on creating a unified plan was the first step. Those involved included the Department of Human Services (DHS), the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the facilities for court-adjudicated youth (which are mostly privately operated with state and local oversight), the individual school districts (in the case of PACTT, the focus was alignment with the districts in Philadelphia and Allegheny Counties), the juvenile court system, and probation officers.

PACTT worked with the six largest residential facilities for court-adjudicated youth in the state to more closely align the curriculum at those sites with the curriculum in the school districts and increase coordination between the placement facilities and schools regarding transcript transfers and other administrative issues. PACTT representatives also worked with DHS to include reintegration workers at the six placement facilities to facilitate a transition plan back to the students’ home school districts before they were released from their placement.

According to a Stoneleigh Foundation report on the PACTT project, the initiative was able to fix the systemic problems that were hindering many students from re-engaging in some form of learning environment. “It’s not as though Pennsylvania juvenile courts and probation departments have never cared about the schooling, skill-training and career preparation that delinquents receive while they’re in residential care. But other priorities — safety and security, treatment services, rehabilitative approaches and philosophies — have gotten a lot more attention,” the report noted.

“And authority to enforce a certain minimal level of educational quality has been fragmented. … The result has been — as is often the case in Pennsylvania — wide variation, and mixed results.”

PACTT created a checklist of requirements for the juvenile justice facilities. Those that met these requirements – which included having a curriculum that aligned with that of the school district that the student would be re-entering – would be considered PACTT-approved facilities. PACTT also created manuals and handbooks to guide the placement facilities in how to work more efficiently with the school districts and other departments.

Back to school
Charles Mostoller

The reintegration workers also play a significant role in helping students transition more smoothly back to school to ensure that they get the services and supports they need. These workers also keep track of the students’ progress even after the students are settled in their new schools.

Lark-Hightower credited her reintegration worker with her success in transitioning to PLAS.

“She helps you with finding a job or going back to school. She comes to the school every Thursday to get my latenesses or my absences,” Lark-Hightower said.

“She is like an extra helper. She helps keep me on the right track, like thinking about colleges and what I am going to do next.”

Once leaving placement, both Lark-Hightower and Ford went with their reintegration workers to the Reentry Transition Initiative-Welcome Return Assessment Process, or Reti-Wrap, center at District headquarters. Through Reti-Wrap, the District assigns students to a school they see as a good fit based on their credit needs and educational history, usually one of the PLAs.

The Reti-Wrap center acts as a coordinator between the placements, reintegration workers, probation officers, students, the court system, the District and the schools to make sure everybody has what they need to quickly place students into the school that best matches their needs.

“When you come out of placement, you’ve got to Reti-Wrap because if you go to, like a school, a regular school, they won’t have nothing for you like a transcript or anything like that, but Reti-Wrap mostly has all your stuff already,” Lark-Hightower explained. “It’s like a 10-minute process.”

Ford added, “They just tell you where you need to go, and you go.”

Lark-Hightower and Ford said that the process was not complicated and that upon arriving at the Reti-Wrap center, most of the necessary steps had already taken place.

PLAS principal Blackwell said that the process is easier for the schools, too, because when students arrive, most of the paperwork is already done. Although not all the credits transfer from juvenile placements, due to differences in school district requirements throughout the state, many of the traditional academic credits do count. Once they transition back, students take classes they must have to graduate: no more, no less.

Not every student takes the same classes and not every student takes the same amount of time to fulfill the classes. It is a more personalized approach and, as a result, more students like Ford and Lark-Hightower are not only graduating from high school, but thinking about college and their options beyond graduation.

“I want to become a registered nurse,” said Lark-Hightower, “I want to go to the Community College of Philadelphia and then I want to transfer over to Penn State.”

Ford added, “Education is the most important [thing]. That is really what you need in life, [because] without education you have no power.”

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