Principal Judith Adams
Credit: photo by Christine Oliva

Three years ago, the school that serves youth at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center got a letter from central office saying that it had been put on probation for low test scores.

The staff was shocked. “I could never understand that,” says special education teacher Deborah Woods. Since the student body turns over rapidly, there’s no way that an annual test can reflect what’s happening with instruction, she notes.

However, in the hands of a determined new principal, probation gave a boost to the instructional program at Nancy B. Jefferson Alternative School. So did a reduction in crowding at the detention center. In recognition of this improvement, central office took Jefferson off probation in November, though its test scores remain low.

Darla Swanson-Byers of the Office of Accountability, who worked with Jefferson during probation, praises Jefferson for creating an innovative curriculum and surpassing other public schools in keeping accurate records on special education students. “I’m very proud of them,” she says.

“I think they’re moving in the right direction,” agrees Peter Leone, director of the National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice. “It’s a lot better than a lot of other places.”

A world apart

At any given time, almost 500 young people aged 10 to 18 attend Jefferson while awaiting trial on charges ranging from petty theft to murder. In the course of a year, 7,200 students pass through its classrooms on the second floor of the detention center. Most are around for only a few days to a few weeks.

At 8:30 each weekday morning, students arrive by elevator from the residential floors above. Escorted by guards, they file into single-sex rooms.

“Most of these kids haven’t been in school for years,” says social studies teacher Anna Uliassi. “If they had been, they were getting kicked out, and that’s why they’re here.”

Students Catalyst interviewed say Jefferson is less challenging academically than their home schools were, but they also admit that education isn’t their top priority. “We’re locked up, you know. It’s not really like a real high school,” says Victor, 17, who attended a Southwest Side high school before Jefferson. “I don’t want to be here.”

Uliassi says her goal with these transient, distracted students is to keep them “in the school mindset while they’re here.” She hopes to show them that they can accomplish something in school and maybe to get them back on track.

Judith Adams, a longtime social worker at Jefferson, became principal in February 1999. She moved quickly to reorganize the school, assigning students to groups by their academic level rather than age and assigning each group to a specific group of teachers. When students were assigned to classes by age, she says, their wide range of academic levels made it hard for teachers to reach all of them.

When the probation letter arrived, she says, “I called and questioned it.” Central office then sent a second letter, saying the school was on probation “because we lacked coherent curriculum and certified teachers, these kinds of things.”

With the designation confirmed, Adams moved quickly again. First, she worked with center officials to correct logistical problems that ate into the 300 minutes of instruction that the state says schools must provide students each day.

“We have to make sure we get them down on time in the school,” says Willie Ross, assistant superintendent of programs for the detention center.

Next, Adams went to central office to beg for certified high school teachers. At the time, most of her staff were special education teachers who lacked the credentials to teach high school. Central office responded by expanding the faculty with an additional 14 new high school teaching positions and by allowing Jefferson to convert some unneeded elementary teaching slots to high school slots.

Darlene McClendon, principal of Northside Learning Center and Jefferson’s former probation manager, notes that Jefferson had asked for such help before. “When any school is on probation,” she observes, “they are in the most positive place to receive the resources they need to achieve.”

Adams puts teacher applicants through their paces, requiring them to observe a class and conduct a lesson on their own.

The biggest challenge, Adams says, is “hiring and retaining teachers who can separate the child from the incident” that landed him or her in detention. “I cannot retain a teacher who refers to kids as thugs and hoodlums. I need teachers who can see the intrinsic value of human life.”

Once Adams had new teachers in place, the faculty worked with the external partner that came with probation, American Educational Services, to build a new curriculum.

“We got together and said, ‘What matters to our students?'” says Mary Rebello, an English teacher who is lead teacher for the 9th-grade group. They came up with six topics: justice, interpersonal relations, drugs, money, education and peer pressure.

Teachers then crafted lessons around these themes. In a unit on justice, for example, elementary students might explore the consequences of a character’s actions, while high school students examine governmental structures and the judicial branch.

The themes have stood the test of time. In year three, teachers are still using the curriculum they created. In September, Anna Uliassi’s students read detective and mystery stories as part of a unit on justice. They also watched a video about a trial and wrote essays to support their opinions about the guilt or innocence of the defendant.

School librarian Shirley Reynolds says the new curriculum sparked a library renaissance. To make room for new books, she weeded out between 10,000 and 15,000 old ones, mostly donated by suburban libraries. “We had books on dieting donated from the Lake Forest library or the Winnetka library,” she recalls. “It wasn’t what students really wanted to read.”

Now, the shelves are lined with current, popular titles and relevant juvenile nonfiction, such as books on teen fathers or how different cultures deal with death. “Most of our books are based on our curriculum,” says Reynolds. “We have a lot of things that are relevant to the students’ lives. I have a book about young teenage fathers because a lot of the boys are fathers.”

But the most popular titles, she says, are books most kids like—”The Guinness Book of World Records,” books on cars, and scary novels like those by Dean Koontz and R. L. Stine.

Special education

About 40 percent of Jefferson’s students are eligible for special education, and 60 percent of them attend regular classes. With the addition of certified high school teachers, Adams was able to assign more special education teachers to work in regular classrooms, providing extra help to the special education students.

She also was able to open more so-called self-contained classrooms for children with severe emotional and behavioral problems. In three years, the number of classrooms more than doubled, from four to nine. Adams badgered the county into building extra rooms for the purpose, says special education teacher Donielle Lawson.

“We are a group of people who take lemons and make lemonade,” says Adams. “Probation has ended up being a real gift.”

While Jefferson was working on its educational program, juvenile justice advocates were pushing for better living conditions at the detention center, especially relief of overcrowding. In the mid-1990s, representatives from the juvenile court and the office of Cook County Board President John Stroger developed a variety of alternatives to incarceration for youth accused of crimes. These efforts have reduced the number of students in the detention center from 779 in early 1996 to fewer than 500 today.

More relief is on the way. In 1999, lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and the MacArthur Justice Center, a nonprofit, public-interest law firm affiliated with the University of Chicago, filed suit on behalf of detainees, complaining in part that overcrowding denied some young people access to Jefferson’s educational services. When the center’s population grew beyond its design capacity, staff did not always bring all the youth to school “because they knew we were maxed out,” Adams explains.

In October, attorneys on both sides announced that an agreement had been reached. Under it, county officials will develop plans to ease crowding further and improve access to education, among other reforms. Independent monitors will oversee progress.

Adams hopes the settlement will reduce the number of times students are pulled out of class to meet with attorneys. She also hopes it will push the county to make educating youth in detention a priority. “I’m hoping the kids will be encouraged by county staff to take the school more seriously,” she says. “If they tell the kids they should cooperate and take it seriously, they’re more likely to cooperate and take it seriously.”

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