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Learning in lockup

Life is tough for local teens serving time in juvenile hall, but the experience is also an opportunity for education, growth

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Posted: Monday, March 5, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 8:56 am, Mon Mar 5, 2012.

There is a cluster of low cinderblock buildings in French Camp, just off of the freeway. Inside, children learn to grow seeds. They study literature by focusing on character traits.

Class sizes are small. Attendance is good.

Only these kids do not go home at night.

Welcome to juvenile hall.

This is a place where young men and women who have been convicted of robbery, murder and attempted murder — among other high-risk crimes — can work on a high school diploma while serving their time. There might be up to 120 students on a given day. Only a handful of these are female. Their sentences range from a few weeks to months behind locked doors.

It is their 24-hour home, with a few hours devoted each day to court school. It is run by the San Joaquin County Office of Education and the county courts.

A small team of veteran teachers willingly accepts the task of educating these hard-to-reach students. Mark Yost and Michael Martinez lead them. Yost directs the school while Martinez manages the security side.

They work together under the glare of constant video surveillance.

The challenges they face are tougher than getting a kid to do his homework.

A single classroom might have students at four different grade levels. It is not uncommon for a child to have missed whole years of school.

Teachers must show their charges how to succeed in a world that might be reluctant to give them a second chance.

"We try not to focus on what got them in here," said Martinez. "We don't want to be jaded by that. Our job is to teach."

Entering the hall

The journey begins when law enforcement brings a student through a set of double doors at the side of the compound. This is called intake.

Simon, not his real name, arrived four months ago. All of Simon's possessions were taken. His clothes and shoes were replaced with standard-issue sweats and blue, off-brand sneakers. His shirt, a light blue, is one of six colors to note which ward he belongs in.

Simon was photographed and fingerprinted.

A mental health counselor ushered the seventeen-year-old into a side room for assessment. Privacy is relative. The room is designed for extreme visibility. The counselor's every hand gesture was clear, though his words were muffled. Simon mostly nodded and shrugged. His time in juvenile hall had begun.

Mornings begin with a group breakfast in each ward. Showers happen in an open range of stalls.

Doors that are open in a normal school, like ones to the classroom or outside, are sealed up with a lock even a sledgehammer could not budge. Only a few staff members in the whole building have a key. The rest press a button on the door, sending a signal to the central security hub. A security guard checks the cameras positioned above each door to ensure it is not an inmate requesting the unlock.

Simon is released for his first class at 8 a.m.

In the classroom

Tammie Voss of Stockton teaches biology and literature to some of the toughest teenagers in San Joaquin County. On weekends, she hops in the car with her boyfriend to go surfing in Santa Cruz.

She does not focus on the crimes that brought these boys to her colorful classroom.

"You think about how do these students think differently," she said. "There is such a high turnover of kids, how do you reach the ones who are constantly cycling in and out of formal education?"

One student did not attend school for two whole years. It is Voss' job to fill in those gaps. She starts new projects often, from raising salmon in an aquarium to watching butterflies change and grow, to keep interest high.

There are a few rows of desks. A computer workstation is situated in the corner. Each wall is lined with students' projects and posters, trimmed with bright borders.

One poster lists goals for the boys when they get out.

A small rectangle of foam sits on the teacher's desk, with numbered holes to return and count the shortened pencils students use.

In her classroom, success is not getting an "A" on a test. It is watching a kid change his attitude and agree to work together with his classmates.

Attitudes can change in the other direction, too.

"They sure get negative after being here a while," she said. After two months in jail, it is tough to see others leaving in two weeks' time.

There's a short break before Simon is escorted to another ward for his next class. Long hallways connect each unit to the rest. Cinderblock walls are sparsely decorated. A tall poster of basketball star Yao Ming is the only color in one corridor.

Amelia Ramirez teaches math here, in a unit set aside for young men with behavioral challenges that need even closer supervision.

"I could never teach regular ed. It would be too simple to follow the instructions, follow the book," said Ramirez.

She has bigger lessons for her students than checking off a list of graduation requirements. Students need to be prepared for the outside world.

There's one place in the compound students never see. The teacher's offices are behind another firmly locked door.

Here they can relax and compare notes on how to best get through to their students.

Yost opened up about the challenges of his student body.

"It's not an eight-hour a day job, or a 40 hour week," he said. "Once you get over a hump, there's always a new challenge."

Yost has spent his whole career in alternative education. To him, these are simply kids who made bad choices. They are his to educate, to the best of his ability. He never feels unsafe in the classroom.

"Everyday has the potential for unsafe action. It takes a certain kind of teacher, and a lot of support," he said.

The teachers concur but they have their own ways of dealing with it.

"We have a great group of kids right now. Some are real knuckleheads but they buy in or they leave," said Voss.

Showing up

You might think that being locked up in your school would get you to class with alarming regularity, but there's a lot that can get in the way.

Students act out. That includes yelling, cursing, and threatening other charges or the staff. Anything that interrupts the routine of daily life could keep Simon out of class and stuck in his room.

It's a seven foot by seven foot cell with a simple bed against the far wall and a stainless steel toilet in the corner. That's it. The heavy door can only be opened from the outside. A narrow slanted window is the only connection between that cell and the rest of the ward.

It can be stressful. Boys slam their fists against the door in frustration and to try to get attention.

"We give them the opportunity to go out if they pull themselves together," said Martinez.

A student who toes the line and shows up to class earns something special. Teachers tally up attendance at the end of each quarter. Students with a 90 percent or better attendance rate get a pizza party and something more permanent.

Yost got permission to grant students a laminated certificate to post in their rooms to show their good attendance record.

That certificate is coveted. Most of these kids have never won an award in their life.

"The pizza is fun, but the tangible stuff is what they hang on to," said Martinez.

Back in his own ward, Simon eats a packaged lunch at a small table screwed into the floor. He is surrounded by rows of cells. A juvenile detention officer keeps watch over the group from a desk.

The final class of the day begins at 1 p.m. Simon joins P.E. teacher Jason Smith for an hour in the recreation yard adjoining his ward.

Smith taught high school science in Waterford for 11 years. But he got a pink slip. He heard of a job opening at the court school and didn't know what to think of it.

"It was kind of strange, thinking of all the different behaviors kids have here," he said. "But Mark said 'Just give it one year,' and now this is my second year here."

Twenty boys are scattered around the yard. It amounts to a dull gray basketball court, with padding on the poles and no netting in the hoops.

Four of them are playing basketball. One pair is playing handball against the cinderblock walls mounted with cameras. These display a live feed back to a central security hub. The rest stand around talking in small groups. Two juvenile detention officers supervise the group.

The students here are considered high-risk inmates as a result of their crimes. But watch them launch a worn basketball at the hoop and it's easy to imagine standing in any high school gym across America.

Smith actually prefers his current job to working in a mainstream classroom. The class size is small, with all the resources they need. There's more structure. Discipline is hugely based on rewards. And the kids thrive on it.

"They don't have parents giving them rewards, showing them they care," said Smith. "If you just treat them like a human being and give them some respect, they'll give it right back."

For most of the hour students worked a fitness program of pushups, sit-ups and running laps. The tail end of class is spent in free time. So much of their day takes place in a small confined area that students become anxious and agitated easily.

If Smith didn't give them this small freedom for ten or 15 minutes, he said, it would be chaos.

The group was ushered back into their cells moments later.

Getting out

Afternoons are reserved for visiting hours.

It's an open room a few steps away from the intake area with chairs and tables in tidy rows. Four smaller rooms line the far wall. A JDO keeps watch from a desk at the front.

Parents can visit their children for 45 minute sessions between 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. No siblings, no food, and no other guests are permitted, aside from lawyers or counselors.

This is also the room where graduation takes place.

Simon has been in juvenile hall for four months. Not much work is left for him to do before completing high school.

The school requires a Graduation By Exhibition, which for Simon amounts to a presentation on physical therapy as a career. He's researched what it takes to get the job. His resume and essay are ready.

"I want to finish high school. I want to get my life together. I want to go to college for physical therapy," he said. Right now, his eye is set on University of Southern California.

A panel of judges from the school and the community will decide whether Simon has learned enough to be granted a diploma.

"I learned it's important for me to be focusing on my career and not giving up," he said. "There were times when it got to the point—"

Simon trailed off. After some prompting by a teacher, he described his love of math and the time he spent tutoring his classmates. He's not talkative. But he's determined to make something of his life when his time in here is up.

Not many students who graduate from juvenile hall go on to a university. But for Simon, who knows what the future may hold?

Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at sarap@lodinews.com.

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