‘Court School’ students are virtually ignored in push for educational equity

By  Jon Funabiki

Journalists in our Equity Reporting Project have examined a diverse range of issues that are shortchanging students of quality educational experiences, but one group stands out as particularly overlooked: students in so-called “court schools.”

Describing them as a “captive audience,” a team from San Francisco-based New America Media (NAM) reports that with few exceptions, local and national educational reform efforts have virtually failed to address the needs of youth attending schools within juvenile justice facilities.

The NAM project is among a series of efforts by journalists and their news organizations from across the country who have been supported by Renaissance Journalism.  Our initiative is designed to shine a light on the opportunity gaps in education that impact many students, especially those who are poor, immigrants or from communities or color.

The NAM package included news stories by Anna Challet, video profiles of young people by Charlie Kaijo and a forum, moderate by NAM Executive Director Sandy Close, that brought together youth advocates, community leaders and some journalists to discuss the issue.

One centerpiece of the forum, which was held July 12 in San Francisco, was testimony by Ayanna Rasheed and Eddie Chavez who spoke about their own experiences in court schools.

Rasheed said she spent 1 ½ years in the San Joaquin County juvenile system as a teenager. She said the classes were “very basic” and consisted mainly of being given worksheets to fill out.

“It was like giving a child a coloring book and saying, ‘here, do this,’” said Rasheed, who is now 22 and developing a career as an emergency medical technician after ridding herself of the “bad habits” that got her into trouble when she was young.

Chavez, who spent time in the Fresno County system while an 8th grade student, recalled that “a lot of the teachers would put on movies, give you chips and let you watch them.” An exception was a substitute teacher who taught history by allowing the students to try on a medieval suit of armor. Chavez, now 20, is in training for a career in the construction business and hopes someday to become a general contractor.

NAM Executive Director Sandy Close said their reporting showed that even though court schools often serve the most-challenged youth, the students themselves expressed aspirations for more and better education, not less.

A study by the Youth Law Center helped NAM’s reporters were piece together what they hearing from young people into a larger context. Nationally, about 50,000 young people are enrolled in court schools, and more than 85% are youth of color. In California, about 8,500 youth attend court schools for some period of time each year.

“The system takes in some of the most challenged youth in our communities and promises to provide them treatment, care, guidance, rehabilitation, and a better path forward,” the center’s study concluded. “But rather than lifting youth up, the juvenile justice system’s ‘court schools’ provide a fast-track to dismal outcomes.”

The study cited three particularly troubling findings. First, suspension rates in the court schools are 2.5 times higher than California’s overall suspension rate of 4.4 percent. Second, academic achievement stagnates—less than two-thirds of students who are in court schools for lengthy terms make gains in reading or math proficiency. And, finally, once students are released from juvenile justice detention, there is a high likelihood that they will drop out of regular school.

“No matter what, we are failing young people,” said Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the Youth Law Center.

Rodriguez and other panelists suggested a number of reforms that could improve the system, including the creation of transition centers or programs that provide court school students with the guidance and services they need to re-enter and succeed in regular schools. Alameda County has created such a program, said David Muhammad, vice president of Impact Justice.

Senator Loni Hancock, D-Oakland, suggested that a lot could be learned by focusing pilot reforms at just three court schools and then studying the results.

Chavez had a simple answer: Hire better, more inspiring teachers, like the one who brought a suit of armor to class.