Nonprofit Seeks to Improve Education at New Orleans Juvenile Detention Facility

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August 7, 2016; New Orleans Advocate

This summer, the Orleans Parish School Board ceded operations of the Youth Study Center to the Center for Education Excellence in Alternative Settings (CEEAS). The Youth Study Center is a juvenile detention facility. Many of its students are black males, who may be at the facility anywhere from two weeks to two years as they await their trial dates.

Youth advocates are anxious for new leadership to elevate the level of instruction at the Youth Study Center. Educating students in a juvenile detention center is often a tricky balance between providing security and education. Because of that, a majority of students receive less than six hours of instruction a day. This is a particular concern for youth advocates in New Orleans, who fear that the students in juvenile detention centers like the Youth Study Center are suffering the continued effects of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, which interrupted schooling and services for many in the community.

While enthusiasm is high for CEEAS to take over the Youth Study Center alternative school, the community is weary as well. According to the Atlantic, 90 percent of New Orleans students attend charter schools. Dominic Domenici, who most recently was the founding principal at the Maya Angelou Academy inside the New Beginnings detention facility in Washington, D.C., will take over leadership at the Center. In 2009, Domenici’s first year at the Maya Angelou Academy, 23 percent of kids were still in school or working 120 days after release from New Beginnings. In subsequent years, that number has increased and remained at 50 percent. These are important numbers, since many students do not return to school after their time in a juvenile detention facility.

Incarcerated youth are, by law, still mandated to receive education. In 2014, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice released a 38-page joint statement calling for improved education in detention centers. One of the main challenges to making those improvements is that although the local juvenile justice department administers some schools within detention facilities, others are run by local school districts. At the Youth Study Center, CEEAS will have full operational control in partnership with the Orleans Parish School Board.

Under CEEAS, students will receive an assessment of their progress toward achieving the traditional credits needed to graduate from high school and will continue to work on obtaining class credits while at the Center. Students will also leave the Youth Study Center with an updated Individualized Education Program, or IEP, which will follow them back to the school they previously attended. Many detained youths have a learning disability, which may or may not have been addressed in the past.

Domenici’s goal is that the teachers and correctional officers at the Youth Study Center will work together to achieve the goal of students leaving the center and returning to the traditional classroom. To ensure that instructional time in the center is not eclipsed by security needs, Domenici plans to use the strategies of reinforcing good behavior and student incentives.—Kelley Malcolm