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Diploma rates rise at youth lockups

State agency cites better programs by Ginny Monk | January 2, 2021 at 3:58 a.m.
A classroom is shown in this 2015 file photo.

More children in Arkansas' youth lockups are leaving with high school diplomas or GEDs, according to counts provided by state officials.

For the 2019-2020 school year, 49 youngsters received their GEDs and 23 got high school diplomas across the four-unit system. Seven students also graduated with high school degrees in December.

Those numbers were up from the previous school year, when 11 students graduated with GEDs and 11 got high school diplomas, said Marcella Dalla Rosa, a superintendent at the state division that oversees operation of the facilities.

The higher numbers could be the result of better data reporting or a population that fluctuates frequently -- most kids spend an average of six months in the division's custody, Dalla Rosa said. But she and other officials who oversee the facilities said more programs have become available and outcomes have improved.

"From years past, there's definite improvement and more collaboration with other organizations," Dalla Rosa said.

Arkansas now has facilities at Alexander, Dermott, Harrisburg and Mansfield. Three former units have closed since early 2019.

The children are court-ordered into Division of Youth Services custody to serve a set sentence and receive counseling as well as other treatments. Most are in high school, although there are a handful of middle-schoolers and some who have finished high school.

They range up to age 21. The four facilities house close to 200.

Improved test scores, in addition to more diploma recipients and successful GED test-takers, indicate higher levels of reading and math skills, according to data provided by a private company that operates the units.

In 2018-19, the Alexander center showed improvements on ACT Aspire testing in six subcategories under reading, English and math.

Too, the number of students in the GED program almost doubled, said Martha Wall-Whitfield, Rite of Passage district principal. Rite of Passage is the company that manages the youth lockups.

Personalized treatment plans, more job training programs and more uniform lesson plans have contributed to any improvements, officials said.

Rich Huddleston, executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children, Youth and Families, said he would withhold judgment on the developments until he sees some "hard data." Huddleston, like many youth advocates who visit facilities, has limited in-person trips because of the coronavirus pandemic.

"Outcomes were not good in the past," he said. "So if they have improved outcomes, that absolutely would be great news for the kids."

Treatment plans, developed for each child by a "treatment team" that includes a therapist, probation officer, parents, teachers and the child, began in May 2019 as a part of Gov. Asa Hutchinson's overhaul of the juvenile-justice system.

The overhaul aimed to decrease the number of young inmates, treat more children in their communities and cut the amount of time they spend in lockups.

"That would have been the first time that [the division] took more of a role in determining what education needs and individual needs" a child has, said Michael Crump, Youth Services director.

Last year, the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center at Alexander joined the three other residential facilities in using Virtual Arkansas, a state-accredited education program that provides online courses to school districts. The Alexander center is the largest youth lockup in the state, and all the adjudicated children go there for at least a couple of weeks for assessment.

The switch started July 1 when Rite of Passage, a Nevada company, started managing facilities at Dermott, Harrisburg and Mansfield. Previously, the company oversaw only the Alexander facility. Youth Opportunity Investments, an Indiana company, had day-to-day control of the other centers.

Rite of Passage also has added several career-training programs this year, and started offering the classes at Alexander during the winter break for the first time, said Jasen Kelly, the center's director.

Most students enter custody at a second- or third-grade reading level, although they are mostly high school students, Rite of Passage's Wall-Whitfield said.

"A lot of them have severe behavior issues and that will often impact their classroom experience," she said. She added that many of the children have issues with truancy.

It's a problem the Youth Services Division, which operates under the Department of Human Services, is aware of.

"Justice-involved kids may not have been in class consistently, and there's various reasons for that," said Keesa Smith, the Human Services Department's deputy director for youth and families. "It could be because of their behavior or outside home factors that lead them to not be in the classroom in a way that facilitates learning."

The use of treatment teams also is making a difference, said Crump. Team plans include therapy and education, and consider input from the child.

"You need some buy-in from the kids in order to achieve their goals, so if you don't talk with them, you don't know what they want," he said.

The Alexander facility's recent switch to the Virtual Arkansas program aims to improve educational continuity among facilities and when the children return home. The credits transfer easily to public schools, Dalla Rosa said.

"We started this four years ago and we've come a long way and we've worked out our kinks and our best practices and what we need to do and the support we need to provide our students," Dalla Rosa said.

Historically, an inconsistent curriculum has been a problem for kids in the division's custody, Huddleston said.

"In the past, one of the issues was that they weren't all doing the same thing and that there was very little standardization," Huddleston said. "The quality from program to program varied."

More standardization, he added, would be a positive development for the young people.

The changes have been challenging for staff members at Alexander, Wall-Whitfield said. But they're adjusting.

"I think it's an ongoing process," she said. "Just when we think we've figured it out, something new will cross our doors, and we'll have to start from scratch again. And I think that's true of education in general these days."

It's been especially tough this year because the children are worried about the pandemic and haven't seen their parents in person for months, she added.

The Alexander facility will offer career certifications during the winter break from school.

Career training programs include carpentry, accounting, iOS mobile app development, culinary Occupational Safety and Health Administration training and automotive mechanics.

Proposed training for the future includes welding, cosmetology, certified nursing assistant, and a three-day OSHA training with certifications available over the break, according to a document provided by Rite of Passage.

"Our goals are to get them employed, enrolled or back into their community," Wall-Whitfield said.

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