Six years ago, before she arrived on the job, Superintendent Sophia Jones-Redmond’s district, Illinois #428, was failing on all counts. The schools were plagued by violence, abysmal graduation rates, inadequate teaching, and was failing to provide special education services or mental health counseling to its students. Her district isn’t large; the six schools she manages educated a total of 390 kids in 2016. Ninety-six percent of her students are male, 78 percent are black or Hispanic, and 100 percent have been convicted of a felony.
Like many other U.S. school districts, #428 needed to change. Unlike other districts, however, #428 had no choice.
School district #428 is comprised of Illinois’ six juvenile detention facilities, and in 2012, the ACLU sued the district on behalf of 1,000 juveniles for what Jones-Redmond (who was not then on staff) acknowledges was, “…atrocious behavior. We were not educating kids, we were confining kids up and beyond thirty days in a cell. […] There were kids were not attending school for three straight weeks. They were kicking it. You know who else was kicking it? The staff.”
As a result of the suit, the federal government ordered Illinois to comply with consent decrees and overhaul just about every aspect of education in Illinois’ juvenile detention facilities.
The consent decree outlined five guiding principles to shape reform in district #428: appropriate class size, the goal of rehabilitation, plans for reintegration, a safe and respectful environment, and strict reporting requirements to promote transparency and accountability.
The first thing Illinois did was divert all non-violent offenders out of juvenile detention facilities and into community-based programs. This immediately reduced the incarcerated population by half, but left the felons—the most violent, disruptive, and troubled youth—in the classroom.
Once the general detention population was reduced, #428 had to hire teachers and lower its student-teacher ratio in the classroom. Jones-Redmond described the process during her panel session:
In the past we would have upwards of twenty youth to one teacher. Everybody, just come in and you know, sit down, and you all can just play cards; just be quiet. Well, the consent decree said no, you will have to have maximum, one teacher for every ten children in the general education environment and if the youth has a special education need, you will have to provide one teacher to every six kids.
Next, district #428 implemented a blended learning model in which students are able work individually, at their own level and pace, under the guidance and supervision of teachers but with the additional support of virtual classrooms and instructional videos.
The students in Jones-Redmond’s district needed more than just curriculum and effective teaching strategies in order to succeed, however. Sixty percent of youth in the district receive individual mental health services, and all juveniles have access to substance abuse treatment, psychiatric services, medical interventions, group therapy sessions and family therapy.
Educators received training in trauma-informed teaching, every school in the district hired a counselor, a special needs coordinator, and a licensed, on-call substitute teacher.
Thanks to the consent decree’s reporting requirement, it’s possible to see the progress school district #428 has made in the past couple of years. Despite cutting the juvenile population from 697 to 390 through the misdemeanor diversion program, the district increased the number of diplomas they awarded by 15 percent. In 2016, the six schools in the district #428 awarded 40 eighth grade diplomas, 143 high school diplomas, and 68 General Equivalency Degrees (GEDs).
Jones-Redmond says these degrees are about a lot more than curriculum or graduation rates. “We are in the business of saving lives. That’s what we do.”
As she concluded her overview of the data on school district #428’s successes, Jones-Redmond recounted the story of a boy who was so angry that he was being forced to go to school, he contacted the ombudsman. ‘Nobody is going to make me go to school,’ he stated in his formal complaint. Rather than punish this kid for refusing to attend, Jones-Redmond decided to travel the five hours from her office to the juvenile detention facility in order to meet with him.
We wrassled for 45 minutes and came to an agreement that he was going to go to school, and he was going to give it a try. But what I did was build a relationship at that moment with him. […] What if I gave up, and said you know what, you don’t have to go to school, just keep playing cards and watching Judge Judy and the news shows. But you know what? We don’t give up.
Unfortunately, most states do. According to Dr. Lynette Tannis of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education who spoke on the same SXSWEDU panel as Jones-Redmond, only 8 percent of states maintain a program for incarcerated youth that’s comparable to the programs in the state’s community schools, and kids with special needs tend to fare even worse. When researchers asked these kids about their classroom experiences, only 46 percent reported they were receiving the services detailed in their Individualized Educational Programs, or IEPs.
The boy Jones-Redmond met with, who agreed to give school a try, went on to become the keynote speaker at his graduation. As she told the story of this boy and the time she spent with him, Jones-Redmond smiled with obvious pride in his accomplishments.
Change is possible, Redmond-Jones insists, even for the most challenging students in the most underperforming districts.
Educating and advocating for these kids can be a hard sell, but she’s all in. “We have youth that have shot and killed people, but you know what? They are still our kids, and they deserve an opportunity.”