In some San Francisco classrooms with students of middle and high school ages, worksheets and library books are the norm.
Some of the students struggle with math and spelling and they typically work in small groups or alone.
A probation counselor officer hovers in the back of the classroom or just outside the door.
That’s the typical scene in court schools at juvenile detention facilities, where students receive a small slice of a high school education that is filled with interruptions and where an average stay is between 28 and 49 days.
Neither The City nor youth advocates know the extent of the challenges because the data collection is so inadequate, according to a group of panelists who discussed California’s court schools in San Francisco last week.
At the panel, “Education Reform’s Missed Opportunity: Young People in California’s Court Schools,” Youth Law Center’s Executive Director Jennifer Rodriguez presented a study published March 31 from interviews with youth, court school staff, and public records.
Like any school, some teachers are cool, engaged and passionate, while others aren’t. But at court schools in San Francisco and around the state, the extremes are more pronounced: Students know their teachers and counselors for just a few days or weeks and find them to be life-changing or nearly impossible to connect with.
Rodriguez, a formerly detained youth who spoke at Tuesday’s panel, spent time in juvenile hall, earned a law degree and now directs the Youth Law Center, a San Francisco-based national legal advocacy organization focused on child welfare and the juvenile justice system.
“Only half of youth make gains while they’re incarcerated,” Rodriguez said. “Young people come in in-crisis often, so school is not a focus. But we also are not equipping them to be in a situation where they can exit and be successful.”
Ayanna Rasheed, another formerly incarcerated youth, said, “Juveniles in juvenile justice are eager to learn.” Now 22, she spent time at San Joaquin Juvenile Hall (also called French Camp) and said the education was “ridiculous.”
When she left, “I had to do high school all over again,” Rasheed said.
“Most of the children who come into the facility [from] very poor-performing schools … are significantly behind in credits and they are below grade level in reading,” said David Muhammad, vice president of national prisoners advocacy group Impact Justice.
Muhammad spent time in Alameda County Juvenile Hall as a teen and worked his way up to chief probation officer there nearly three decades later. When he became chief, he said, “The average age was 15-and-a-half, and the average reading level was fifth grade.”
One recent study found the most common characteristic among adult inmates in California was not race, ethnicity or income level — rather, it was poor academic performance, Muhammad said.
“A RAND Corporation study in 2014 found that inmates who complete an education program while in custody have a reduced recidivism level of 42 percent versus inmates who do not,” he said, adding that education is the best deterrent to entering the system in the first place.
Numerous studies have examined incarcerated adults’ access to education, but very little research has been done for juveniles. Youth advocates find that lack of priority odd because attending school is compulsory in California until age 16, and students must at least attend continuation schools until age 18.
“There are some flaws with the data, which is a system-level problem,” Rodriguez said. “Until you have accurate information about who your students are, how they are doing, and what happens to them, you can’t know how to correct or what you’re doing well.”
School costs, ‘spotty’ data
California gives court schools more money than other public schools: $11,428 per court school student versus $8,800 per student at other public schools, and $17,428 per high-needs court school student, versus $12,546 per high-needs student elsewhere, according to Louis Freedberg, executive director of EdSource, a California education advocacy organization.
The Juvenile Justice Center’s Woodside Learning Center is where detained youths in San Francisco are moved in-and-out for two days, a few weeks or longer while waiting for court trials or placement at other juvenile detention facilities. It’s a transient existence that makes it hard for kids to build upon their knowledge.
Every public school has a School Accountability Report Card available online, but Woodside’s data is lumped in with San Francisco’s other court school, Log Cabin Ranch, a minimum-security facility in the Santa Cruz Mountains for longer stays.
The boxes on the SARC form for those schools are mostly blank.
“The data is a little bit spotty … the population is too transient so they can’t maintain data. It’s really confusing, that’s always been a problematic program to get a handle on,” said Jim Delara, who compiles SARCs for the San Francisco Unified School District.
Court schools record attendance on paper spreadsheets even though other district schools have switched to computerized systems, he said.
In the classroom
At many court schools like Woodside, students are given packets or worksheets of math and English exercises, Rodriguez said.
“The curriculum that we use is the standard high school curriculum that any kid in San Francisco high school would be using,” San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department’s Chief Probation Officer Allen Nance said.
Unlike most court schools around the state, where students attend lessons at tables in their residential units, San Francisco’s Woodside has a learning center that was built in 2007.
“Kids have the experience of getting up every day, getting dressed and going to school … The classrooms look exactly like classrooms in a normal school setting,” Nance said.
During the 2013-14 school year, Kyla Quillin was a part-time “partner teacher” in math classes at Woodside while a graduate student at San Francisco State University.
“Sometimes kids who’d been there before complained that they’d done the same worksheets, which I believe — they don’t keep track,” Quillin said. “A lot of students are in special ed. Probably not getting enough support in school is related to why they end up there.”
Nationally, 30 to 50 percent of court school students qualify for special education services. More than 80 percent were young people of color. Nearly 20 percent of juvenile detention inmates in the U.S. identify as LGBT, versus 7 to 8 percent of youths overall, according to a 2015 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Like Rodriguez of the Youth Law Center, many have been shuffled around the foster care system and come from environments with little stability or support.
Court students’ progress in reading and math is determined by pre-tests when they enter and post-tests before they leave. But students might be moved from the detention center at any time the juvenile court determines, so the post-tests often don’t happen, said Maria Ramiu, managing director of Youth Law Center.
“We never knew who was leaving when,” Quillin said. “They’d just disappear.”
Too often, the few credits they earned at various juvenile detention centers aren’t counted or students don’t know how to access them, panelists said Tuesday.
Eddie Chavez, 20, spent time as a teen in Fresno Juvenile Justice Campus, where his teachers often simply put on a movie in class. He earned just 15 credits toward a high school diploma. Chavez’s current job at a Fresno thrift store sponsors his tutoring lessons.
In court school classrooms, students are typically grouped by cell unit, not grade level, with sixth through 12th grades lumped together like the days of one-room prairie schoolhouses — except the one or two teachers are accompanied by a probation counselor.
San Francisco’s Log Cabin school recently stopped grouping classes by unit and moved toward grouping students by grade level.
“It’s a huge breakthrough, required massive negotiations with probation,” said Alysse Castro, director of SFUSD’s alternative, continuation, county, court and independent schools.
The SFUSD had more than 55,300 students at the 2010 census, whereas only 496 students passed through San Francisco’s court schools last year, Castro said.
Practices and priorities
San Francisco’s court schools are run by the SFUSD inside juvenile detention facilities, which are led by the Probation Department, and the two departments can differ in practices and priorities.
“I still remember my very first night in juvenile hall. I had a pencil and was trying to do my homework,” Rodriguez said. “The pencil was immediately confiscated for being contraband. That was the moment I knew education was not a priority.”
In San Francisco, it took planning and resources to allow detainees to do homework in their units. The court school principal had to arrange supervised times — about one hour a night — when pencils would be allowed.
“No county has an MOU [memorandum of understanding] between the Probation Department and the county Office of [Education] — a simple thing like how we want to work together. That is a huge issue,” Muhammad of Impact Justice said.
Nance, the probation chief, said The City’s court schools have a strong partnership between probation and education.
Commonly, probation officers keep some kids separated, and in school only half the day, if they have real or perceived conflict with another youth. Recently in San Francisco, probation took on the costs of opening a new, separated area so every kid in custody now has access to a full day of study.
“Probation had to fund it. They had to provide people to supervise it,” Castro said.
But the cozy relationship between educators and probation officers —and the educational improvements it yields — is still not the norm in California. The focus is usually on corrections and keeping things easy, Youth Law Center’s Maria Ramiu said.
“We have seen systematic efforts begun to reform every element of juvenile justice,” with the exception of education, Rodriguez said.
Searching for answers
The state average for suspension rates is 10 percent in public schools, but 40 percent in California court schools. Willful defiance, which is as minor as students rolling their eyes, swearing in class or folding their arms, is the most prevalently reported reason for suspensions.
“We’re seeing rates of truancy and suspension far higher than any other type of school” which is ironic, Rodriguez said, because youths in custody are in a secure, locked-down environment.
Still, “Suspension is not acceptable for us,” Nance, the chief probation officer, said. “We make sure that every kid is in school every day.”
Statewide, nearly 40 percent of youths drop out during or after spending time in court schools,, exacerbated by their “home schools” barring them from re-enrollment, Rodriguez said.
Only half re-enroll in school within 30 to 90 days of exiting detention.
Many end up in the same detention centers again.
At the panel, state Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Oakland, suggested starting a pilot program to improve strengthen education in possibly three California court schools.
“These are kids who have really been failed by virtually every other system they’ve come in contact with by the time they reach a juvenile court school,” Hancock said.
The current estimated cost of $120,000 to detain one youth for one year could go toward strengthening education in court schools, Rodriguez said.
“We have the chance to give them a world-class education with those dollars,” she said.