Education of Delaware incarcerated kids scrutinized

By Rachel Sawicki
Posted 4/5/22

Nearly 500 children went through Delaware's juvenile justice system from July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021.

Most were 16 or older, but there were some as young as 12, and many were several years behind in their education when detained.

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Education of Delaware incarcerated kids scrutinized

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The story contains udpated information.

Nearly 500 children went through Delaware's juvenile justice system from July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021. The majority of them stayed an average of 45 days in one of the system's detention centers during that time.

Most were 16 or older, but there were some as young as 12, and many were several years behind in their education when detained.  

Several weeks ago at a presentation by the Delaware Department of Education to the General Assembly’s Joint Finance Committee, Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown, said youth in facilities like the Stevenson House Detention Center in Milford and the Ferris School in Wilmington, can be several grade levels behind and may not be ready for career technical education, raising questions about how to set these students up for success.

“You can’t go to a technical school if you’re not on grade level,” she said. “So they’re falling through the cracks in more ways than one. They probably need that solid foundation more than some others.”

DOE representatives were grilled by members of that committee about incarcerated students, given that situation.

“A lifeline for them is getting a job, whatever their circumstances may be,” Rep. Briggs King said. “If they’re not going to be able to go into college because they might only get a certificate of completion but not a diploma (after high school), it seems to me like we’re making the road for them more difficult.”

The education system for juvenile offenders is run by the Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families. Angie Porter, the Educational Services Unit supervisor at DSCYF, started out as an Indian River School District teacher with a background in special education in 2002.

She said students in detention centers have full school days, five days a week, with class sizes of six to eight per instructor. DSCYF helps teachers and administrators at the facilities determine what each student needs to focus on, including credit recovery for any failed or missed classes.

“A lot of these kids are kids that maybe have not met with success in a traditional school for a variety of reasons, like larger class sizes. They’re less likely to find somebody that they really connect with, and building those relationships is really important,” Ms. Porter said.

The Division of Youth Rehabilitative Services operates multiple 24/7 facilities throughout the state: two juvenile detention facilities, the New Castle County Detention Center in Wilmington and the Stevenson House; one secure post-sentence residential treatment facility, Ferris School; and three minimum-security residential treatment facilities, Grace, Mowlds and Snowden cottages, also known as the residential cottages.

From July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021, there were 391 children in detention centers and 104 in juvenile corrections. On average, there are about 100 youth residing at 24/7 secure care facilities daily.

All voluntarily participate in performance-based standards, commonly known as PbS, a data-driven improvement model grounded in research that challenges youth correction, detention, assessment and community residential agencies to treat all youth similarly.

Ms. Porter said that, at the JFC hearing, Rep. Briggs King referred to data from pretest scores. She explained that students who are sent to long-term centers will often take pretests to evaluate their math and reading comprehension when they arrive and then again before they depart to measure progress. There are some who, on paper, appear to have gotten worse, but the data doesn’t necessarily reflect individual students’ skills.

“So if we’re looking at a set of students and their pretest scores, and then, we look at a set of students and post-test scores, it’s not necessarily the same group of students,” Ms. Porter said. “But for students who have been with us for significant amounts of time, like six or nine months, that trend line in data kind of goes up.”

According to the 2021 Consolidated State Performance Report from DSCYF, there were 21 long-term students (enrolled at a correctional or detention facility for 90 or more consecutive days) with a negative grade level change from pre- to post-test exams in math last year.

However, 16 long-term pupils improved one full grade level from pre- to post-test in math, and 64 students improved more than one grade.

In reading, 19 students showed negative improvement, 21 showed an improvement of one grade level, and 62 showed a jump of more than one grade.

But Ms. Porter noted that, for students who are temporarily housed, it is very difficult to quickly and efficiently create a student success plan. Some of these children are at the facilities less than two weeks, making it hard to achieve credit recovery or accumulation. The number of students who have received credit, as well as earned their GED certificates or high school diplomas while in the programs, does continue to grow, according to Ms. Porter.

She recalls the pride she felt last year when nine students who had come through the doors of detention facilities made it to graduation, either at their public schools or in the detention facilities. After that, DSCYF staff work to connect those students with a postsecondary education, though there are challenges to access college funds for some.

Reentry barriers

Students who enter the juvenile justice system — regardless of how long — face many barriers to reentry into traditional schools, and the vast majority never graduate from high school. But DSCYF has transition coordinators to mitigate those difficulties, Ms. Porter said.

Teachers at the state’s detention centers are involved with their students the minute they arrive, said Tamara Barnard, who works at Ferris School and has 12 years of experience, including a background in behavioral science.

She said she fell in love with her position, advocating for kids who were having trouble with traditional education. Ferris includes three staff-secured residential programs to help detainees smoothly transition back into the community.

“We sit down with the student and get their wishes,” she said. “Some students, of course, want to get back on track, so we set up some kind of credit recovery to get them in a better position.”

After a resident departs, DSCYF follows the student for 90 days to make sure they are assimilating well.

“Each case is different,” Ms. Barnard said. “Some kids, it’s just a simple phone call or stopping at the school. Then, there are times where we do have to have meetings where we’re advocating for the students to be able to get the resources that they need to mimic the resources they received here to do well, so that they continue to stay on the path.”

In the first 60 days after detention, Ms. Porter said most kids are doing well. But then, there tends to be a drop-off, so there are now some extra checkpoints between the 60- and 90-day period, resulting in slightly improved numbers.

She added that success levels for youth are very individualized; however, an example of a good transition back to a home school could include positive school interactions and grades or possibly finding employment.

Ms. Barnard said one of the toughest social challenges for these students is a lack of encouragement to keep succeeding.

“Sometimes, when students get on the honor roll or something, they usually are not on a path that has always been celebrated,” she said. “So we celebrate with them because it puts them back on track. Some students may only be here for 30 days, so we can’t necessarily make up credits, but what I can do is give the kids the confidence to know that they’re fully capable of accomplishing the goals they’ve set for themselves.”

Other obstacles

Just like all students, the kids Ms. Barnard interacts with can have bad days, and many in the detention centers also have learning disabilities, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Additionally, the community students return to may not have the resources they need to succeed, so Ms. Barnard is careful not to offer too many unrealistic options.

“Some students are excluded from testing. Some students have smaller settings. Some students get breaks, but then there are some students who don’t have that option,” she said. “So as much as we want to give them every option, there are some things that are beyond our control, and we don’t want to present an unrealistic setting for the kid here because if they’re successful here but then return to their comprehensive school and don’t have that option, I don’t want to set them up for failure either.”

There are also youths who return for a second or third time — sometimes more — because their impulsiveness gets the best of them, Ms. Porter said, or they’re running with the wrong crowd and end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. In those cases, the center will offer additional programming around making better choices.

But they don’t always come back for behavioral reasons.

“Sadly, this is their safe space,” Ms. Porter said. “They know they have a place to sleep. They know they will have food to eat, clothes to wear and people who care about them.”

That is why there are several noneducational programs for kids in the system, too, to give them a chance to mature mentally and behaviorally.

Jen Rini, community relations coordinator for DSCYF, detailed several evidence-based programs, such as Thinking for a Change — where youth participate in sessions about cognitive self-change, social skills and problem-solving methods. There are also victim sensitivity projects and even family nights at YRS sites.

“For a lot of kids, even though they come in and out, and we might be tempted to see that as a failure, we always hope that some of that sticks,” she said. “And when kids are ready to make that change and really receive that and work on that, that they’ll remember those things that they’ve learned, and they can make those changes.”