Ensuring the last chance for kids in the AZ justice system isn’t a dead end

By

Erik Ketcherside

There are more than 400 high schools in Arizona. You see their students in your neighborhood, walking to school or waiting for the bus, in a nearby Target store shopping for school supplies in late summer, or loudly filling a high school football stadium under Friday night lights.

But there is one Arizona high school whose students you never see. They don’t take the bus. They don’t shop. They don’t go to the game. They don’t even go home after school because home and school are behind the same tall fence topped with razor wire.

These are students, but they’re also prisoners — ages 14 to 18 — sentenced to time in Adobe Mountain School. As of October, this facility in north Phoenix housed 172 youths. Its capacity is 430, but the low occupancy reflects a national trend: youth inmate populations are declining due to a shift to community-based supervision. Still, for teenagers who buck that trend and end up incarcerated, Adobe Mountain offers them the chance to keep their education going while they’re inside.

Keeping that education going is vital, not only to the young inmates but to the community. A 2013 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that juvenile incarceration decreases a young person’s likelihood of graduating from high school by 13 percent, and increases the odds that they will return to prison as an adult by 22 percent.

The view from both sides of the fence

Heather Griller Clark knows the statistics. She also knows some of the kids those statistics represent from years she spent, as she puts it, “behind the fence.” Griller Clarke is a principal research specialist at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. But before earning her PhD in Curriculum and Instruction from ASU in 2003, she was a special education teacher at Black Canyon School, one of several facilities now closed due to declining incarceration rates. Working with youth in the Arizona juvenile justice system since 1993, Griller Clark knows many of them face long odds when they are granted parole, or when they age out of the system at 18.

“These are kids who have made some poor choices,” Griller Clark says, “and typically don’t have that caring mentor or caring adult in their lives. Some of them do, but for the most part, it’s kind of a culture of crime that many of them are in. A lot of them have mental health issues, a lot of them have disabilities.”

Griller Clark was a teacher for the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections, which operates its own one-school district at Adobe Mountain. Its teachers are all Arizona-certified and subject to the same requirements as public school teachers outside the fence for core content areas. Some are certified in vocational education, and those are the teachers Griller Clark is working with to improve the odds of success for youths who leave Adobe Mountain.

Her project is called RISE-IT — Reentry Intervention and Support for Engagement by Integrating Technology — and it’s the creation of Griller Clark and Sarup Mathur, professor of special education in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation. Mathur is an important voice in the field of emotional and behavioral disorders of children, serving as co-editor of the special issue of Education and Treatment of Children on Severe Behavior Disorders of Children and Youth for more than 20 years. She has also been president of the Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders and of Teacher Educators for Children with Behavioral Disorders.

Mathur and Griller Clark have been a research team for two decades. “We’ve had this long-term research agenda to assist kids,” Griller Clark says. “We’ve written a number of grants related to juvenile justice and transition over those 20 years. Some of the projects have been focused behind the fence, but the more recent ones, like RISE-IT, are really about that transition back to school or work.”

Getting ready for release

Leslie LaCroix, RISE-IT’s transition specialist, says preparation for that transition begins as soon as possible. “We’ve found that the best time to start planning their exit is right when they get there,” LaCroix says, “as soon as they’re committed to the department. We tell them about this additional programming we created inside ADJC, talk to them about transition, and we partner with the teachers to talk about vocational opportunities outside.”

To prepare for those opportunities, students can take five-week courses to earn certificates in a number of occupations: industrial trades, graphic design and computer animation, culinary arts, automotive maintenance, cosmetology and fire science. Additional certification is available in CPR and from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“One of the main points of this project is to elevate entry-level careers for these kids,” Griller Clark says. “We can get them a job at McDonald’s or Jack In the Box when they get out, but if they’ve been in these vocational programs, we’re emphasizing entry-level positions related to those certificates they earned. They might want to work at McDonald’s, but not for long. It’s not a career path.”

Fundamental to the program are community partnerships outside the fence. RISE-IT’s project manager, James Short, works to increase support and options for the students after they’re released. “We have a pretty robust advisory board and a growing list of partners,” Griller Clark says, “and everyone on it can offer programs or services for the kids that are coming out.”

Among those adviser-partners are local representatives of printing giant AlphaGraphics. Griller Clark says, “We started a lab where kids receive instruction in graphic design behind the fence. Then, through this partnership, a representative from AlphaGraphics comes out to the facility and talks those kids about potential career options and entry-level opportunities in graphic design.” Griller Clark says AlphaGraphics is willing to hire RISE-IT alumni if they have openings in the locations the kids are returning to after earning the certificate. Similar willingness has been expressed by Aria Air Conditioning and Heating and the Hensley Beverage Company.

More than career-readiness

Of course, most of the students who earn a certificate through RISE-IT don’t exit the system ready to start down a career path. In fact, most of them will not have even a high school diploma yet. LaCroix says, “We have 17-year-olds going into the system who have one or two high school credits, which means they’ve done nothing, education-wise because maybe they’ve been involved in gangs or just not in school. For a lot of these kids, going to classes during the week for their compulsory education [at Adobe Mountain] is the first time they’ve gone to a classroom Monday through Fridays, ever.” The most important part of her job, she says, is helping them finish high school.

“One of the things that's hardest for the child and for the school is getting a copy of their transcript,” LaCroix says. “You need official transcripts in order to enroll, so one of the things we work with ADJC on is making sure the kids have at least an unofficial transcript with them so the school they’re enrolling in when they exit can immediately put them into the proper classes. By the time kids are 17 or 18 they just don't have the time, ambition or energy to take classes that are not credit-earning, so it's very important that the incoming school knows exactly where to place them.” That’s also the reason why online high school on the outside is an attractive option for them. “‘Online’ is a bit of a misnomer,” LaCroix explains, “because for a lot of the online schools you actually have to physically be there. You go into a building you sit at a computer; 9 to noon Monday through Thursday is a common online schedule.”

Keeping the students on track toward their diploma is essential. Their chance of graduating is already reduced by 13 percent, according to that 2013 NBER study. And last fall, Jeff Hood, ADJC's interim director, told a state legislative committee that 37 percent of youths in the juvenile justice system recidivate within three years. While they’re working toward their diploma, LaCroix works with them, if they’re willing, to prepare them for the steps after that. “Resume building is a big thing that we do,” she says. “I also coach them that they don't have to answer any questions they’re not asked. On paper, Adobe Mountain is just a school, so just keep right on moving along with the interview. They don't need to make a point of explaining that it's inside.”

Beth Rosenberg is director of child welfare and juvenile justice for the Children’s Action Alliance, a statewide advocacy group with offices in Phoenix and Tucson. She has no direct connection with RISE-IT, but she emphasizes the importance of the services it provides.

“The youth at Adobe Mountain need the tools, education and preparation to be successful in the community,” Rosenberg says. “Whatever they learn there needs to translate to how they can use those skills when they return to the community.” That means a program that continues outside the fence, Rosenberg says. “They need the transition support that helps them gain and use whatever skills they have acquired; [a program] that really follows the youth and supports them and helps them achieve their career, employment or education goals when they return to the community. It needs to be a whole package.”

Sustainable support

The grant for RISE-IT isn’t open-ended. Funding will end in September, but there will still be students at Adobe Mountain. What happens for them?

“A part of the grant speaks to sustainability once funding is no longer available,” Griller Clark says. “There was sub-award money that we invested in ADJC to purchase labs and updated software that will continue after this grant. So they’ll still have those labs in place and those certificates available. And we’re working with them in the area of community corrections,” she says of what in adult corrections is called parole. “It’s not just ensuring kids do clean drug screenings and don’t commit crimes. It’s really about getting them meaningfully engaged in work.”

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