J. Brent Hanchey Credit: Photo by John Booz

Ninth-grade biology teacher Brent Hanchey loves the challenge of working at Jefferson Alternative High inside Cook County’s Juvenile Detention Center. Hanchey previously taught young adults at York Alternative High inside Cook County Jail and wrote his doctoral dissertation on the academic and social needs of incarcerated youth. Hanchey recently won the U.S. Dept. of Education’s American Star of Teaching Award for using innovative instruction to raise student achievement. He talked with writer Tiffany Forte about the needs of incarcerated students and how schools can meet those needs.

Talk about your experience at York.

I started [teaching] at York in 2003 and became science department chair in 2004. My primary goal was to implement research-based practices and improve test scores. We put questions on exams that were similar to those on the ACT and the SAT to simulate that testing environment. We discussed different learning styles and practiced lessons in department meetings. We incorporated each of those styles into each lesson. Student attitudes toward science improved and scores rose.

How do you meet the individual needs of each student when some are at the Detention Center for 30 days and others for two years?

I’m very hands-on. I’m always on my feet. If a teacher sits behind the desk, then students will not be apt to ask any questions about their assignment. However, if the teacher is passing by, they will be more apt to ask. Getting to know all my students is my ultimate goal. Each of my new students [completes] an interest inventory of biographical and personal information so I can know them better. If I know that a student or the class as a whole is interested, for instance, in a certain sport, I can relate my instruction to that topic. Using real-world topics is an important teaching tool.

You won an award for creative teaching. Can you elaborate on your methods?

You have to incorporate specific items for each type of learner—auditory, visual and kinesthetic—into your lesson plan. I do that for every single class. Also, I’ve brought our own science fair here. All the students wanted to create a science project. There are restrictions on what students can use in this environment. [Glass, metal and chemicals are banned.] So we decided to implement a horticulture program, with students monitoring plant growth and performing experiments with the plants.

Talk about the challenges of teaching incarcerated students.

The students have a lot on their minds. They have their own personal lives and court cases to deal with, and sometimes it’s very hard to motivate them. I have to have individual conversations with them. I have to wear many hats and play psychologist, teacher, dad, even the role of mom. It is very difficult and frustrating sometimes. But out of all the jobs in the world, I wouldn’t trade it for any other.

Based on your research for your dissertation, what do incarcerated kids need most?

They need tremendous nurturing. Many have never had the opportunity to act like children. We, as educators, should provide nurturing not only when we have students in class, but also when they transition out [from Jefferson]. And law enforcement officials need to provide incarcerated youth with the same curriculum, both academic and extracurricular, as other students.

What about rehabilitation, so students don’t come back?

The recidivism rate at Jefferson is extremely high. It’s important to remain in contact with these kids once they leave. Stay in contact with everyone for a year. Help them find a job, get back in school. Check on them and see how their lives are going. Make sure that they’re not getting in trouble again—getting “caught up,” as the kids say. We are working on implementing this type of program at Jefferson.

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