EGG HARBOR CITY - The theme of the story being discussed in Esther Schram's English class was "Don't be too quick to judge a person."
That theme may also apply to the students Schram teaches at the Southern Residential Community/Transition Center. All 23 male residents are doing time for a crime. Most are 16 to 18 years old, and woefully behind in their academic studies. Teachers view most students as troubled kids who fell through the cracks. Now, they're trying to pull them out.
"You're not just teaching a subject," Schram said. "You're getting into their problems, teaching them about life. You have to want to do this."
Here, with no outside distractions and a strict daily schedule, the students are attempting to make up for lost time. The goal is not just to gain freedom, but to leave with a high school diploma or be on track to graduate.
"There is something to be said for having a captive audience," said Alma Griffin-Only, school psychologist at the center. "Here they can be kids. They don't have the pressure of the streets."
Most students are two to three years behind academically, said Tremaine Harrison, assistant director of education for the state Juvenile Justice Commission, or JJC. Typically they were absent so many days they didn't get credit, or just dropped out.
But in a state juvenile facility, school is not a choice but a requirement - both for the students who attend and their hometown school districts, which must pay for it.
The school day runs from 8:15 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. for 220 days a year. There is no summer vacation. Students take English, math, history, science, Spanish and physical education. The Southern program also offers horticulture, and has a partnership with Atlantic Cape Community College that prepares participating students for the Food Service Sanitation Certificate test that can help them get an entry-level job.
Some residents start at a more secure facility, where they also attend school, then work their way to a transition center such as Southern.
"We need to acclimate them back into the community," said Walter C. Cox, supervisor of education for the region. "And many will graduate from high school before they leave here."
Home districts pay
The state School Facilities Education Act requires hometown districts to pay for the students' educations, a sore point in districts with high juvenile-incarceration rates. Legislative efforts in 2004 to instead use state lottery funds failed to get support, and the effort lost momentum.
"We still advocate for full state funding," said Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association. "But it's not a priority in the Legislature right now with the economic climate and all the other issues out there."
The costs can be substantial, ranging from $4,500 per year for students in a detention center to $30,750 for students in a community program. For 2011-12, the statewide cost is about $39 million for about 2,040 students, according to data provided by the state Department of Education.
Harrison said enrollment in state facilities is down about 400 residents as more juveniles get placed in alternative programs, which is good for them but tough on the education program's budget. Southern currently has no science teacher because there is no funding.
Atlantic City has 74 students in state facilities this year, and the school district is being charged $1.5 million to cover the cost. Superintendent Fredrick Nickels is not happy about the expense, but said it may be worth it if the students can graduate while completing their sentence. Otherwise the district must continue to pay to educate them when they get out.
"We do have quite a few students in that situation and, depending on their crime, we might not want them to come back in with the regular school population," Nickels said.
He said some might be assigned to the district's alternative high school, Viking Academy, or they might even be sent to a private school. Students with learning disabilities can attend school until they are 21.
Harrison said it can be hard for a juvenile who has been in a sheltered state facility to return to a large, urban high school.
"They've already been disenfranchised from school," he said. "Here it is very small, communal."
Classes at Southern are not fancy; many are held in trailers. But they are small - typically three or four students at a time. Harrison said the teachers have to sell students on the idea that their education is valuable to get them to buy into learning.
Teachers teach six classes a day and embrace their role as mentors. Music plays softly in the background of June Peterson's math class as she stops to work with each student.
"It's not like you just do a 45-minute period and you're done," Peterson said. "We'll see these students all day long, and they need attention. People will say I teach bad boys. No, I teach boys who made bad decisions."
About a third of the students in juvenile facilities are classified as disabled, and can remain in school until they are 21. Students can opt to get a GED diploma rather than a traditional New Jersey high school diploma, but they are encouraged to try to get the traditional certificate.
Raymond, 18, from Atlantic County, dropped out of school in eighth grade because he just didn't like it. He said his JJC teachers worked with him and he has made it to algebra II in math. He's hoping he can graduate this year with his high school class.
"I'm trying to make up all that time," he said. "Here, they explain (the work) and they make sure you know it. They told me I'm smart enough to do this. I'd really like to walk with my class."
Harrison said students take the state high school graduation test and can also take the SAT if they think they might want to attend college. Some can take college courses online.
Tirrell, 20, is trying to complete his high school requirements before he is released. He said he spent two years at the New Jersey Training School for Boys before his transfer to Southern, and it was a wake-up call.
"I had 14 (high school) credits when I started, and now I have 100," he said. "There are no distractions. You learn more."
Students also get Aggressive Replacement Training, behavioral-modification therapy and counseling.
"Some have done some hard crimes," Harrison said." It doesn't change what they did, but we try to recognize they are still kids."
Staff also work to broaden the residents' view of the world they will enter when they leave. Students from Richard Stockton College's teacher-education and social-work programs intern at the center, allowing residents to interact with people close to their own age who are making positive decisions.
Horticulture students have participated in the Philadelphia Flower Show and got an honorable mention in the window-box division, teacher Rob Hess said as nearby students worked in a greenhouse full of potted plants.
A display case in the lounge area holds copies of high school diplomas from students who have graduated.
"We try to get as close as we can to getting them that diploma while they're here," Harrison said. "If not, they're less likely to get it once they leave. They won't get the attention we give them."
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