Illinois Overhauls Education for Children in Juvenile Detention


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.

“Everything about IDJJ got flipped up, and it was amazing” said Jones-Redmond during the panel, “Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline” at the 2018 SXSWEDU conference in Austin.

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.”


Great Responsibility Begins With Great Trust

Sincere thanks to the nearly one hundred teachers and parents who emailed or tweeted me with quotes for this piece. I hope it will challenge at least a few of you to turn over the keys to your child's life and education to - gasp - your child. I've been writing a lot about promoting autonomy and intrinsic motivation in kids (stay tuned, the book's almost done!) and if we could just return to a place of independence, autonomy, and faith in our kids, if we could just show them that we believe they will do the right thing, they just might live up to that challenge. You can read the article here. If you like it, share it!

Looks like it's getting read! Thanks, everyone!!!

Specific thanks for quotes go to Mindi Dench, Christiana Whittington, Elena Marshall, Lisa Heffernan, Gina Parnaby, Bryan MacDonald, and Dana Salvador.

The Role of Empathy in the Classroom:

Teacher’s lives are cyclic; fall is for new beginnings, winter is for maintaining momentum, and spring is for closure. And summer. Ah, summer. This season is not, as many assume, for leisure. Rather, it’s one of the most important seasons of a teacher’s year – a time for planting the seeds of next year’s successes; for reconciliation, reorganization, and recreation - not as in camping and swimming and hiking, but re-creation; re-invention and refreshment - a time for intellectual and emotional renewal. Summer is for upending syllabi, questioning assumptions, and stepping back to view the previous academic year through a wider lens.

I look forward to this season of re-creation every year. I poke my classroom’s sacred cows to make way for new ideas and strategies. As I organize the contents of my file cabinets and desk drawers, I account for the things I should keep and the things that need to go. Out with stale lectures, and in with lessons that engage everyone and create real opportunities for learning. As I’m purging, I keep my eyes open for the big flashes of insight and perspective that promise to impose order out of educational chaos.

The insight that emerged from this year’s accounting is the vital, and yet often misunderstood, role of empathy in the classroom. Much of what I teach and write circles around the subject of empathy, whether I’m teaching To Kill a Mockingbird or writing about character education. Teachers and parents praise the value of empathy as a skill we need to instill in our students, and that’s true. However, I find that increasingly, many parents would benefit by walking around in someone else’s skin for a while.

As a parent, it’s natural to look out for the interests of one’s own child, but it’s become commonplace for parents to demand that teachers cater to the needs of their student above all others. Tommy doesn’t want to participate because it makes him uncomfortable, and Alice gets upset when she’s ignored. Kate would like lessons to be conveyed visually, while Marcus would prefer verbal instructions. Mary can’t sit near Tammy and Jacob must sit near Matthew, and while we’re at it, email me immediately with any and all instances of negative language, gestures and expressions directed at Bethany.

This isn’t a call for empathy for teachers. That would be lovely, and I won’t turn that gift away, but I’m asking parents to have more empathy and protective instinct for the entire classroom community. Classrooms should be egalitarian, in that no one student is more important than the others, and all are integral to the class’ academic and social success. As we pass through this season of re-creation, I hope parents will consider planting seeds of empathy in their own backyards, to teach their children how to cultivate that virtue by setting an example. No need to worry if it’s a second planting; we could all use some reserves going into the year ahead.

Inspiration in Unlikely Places

I did an interview last week with Scott Barry Kaufman, author of Ungifted, and he mentioned a really cool nonprofit called The Future Project. He described Dream Directors who go into schools and encourage kids to articulate their dreams, then mentor them as they see those dreams to fruition.

I had to find out more. This article is the result of my research on The Future Project, which led to Tim Shriver, which led to Google, which led to Daniel Pink, and back around again to The Future Project.

You can read it over at the Atlantic.

Across the Atlantic

In my first weeks of summer, and therefore the beginning of my two-year adventure as a full-time writer (can you tell I like to type those words? Full-time writer. They have a certain loveliness and poetry.) I've been busy. Here's what's going on over at the Atlantic. You can read the rest of the article and check out the 200-odd (and I do mean odd) comments here.

Being on Time Means Being Early

I was watching Judd Apatow's This is 40 [again] last night with my husband in order to decompress from a troubling day, and was delighted to see my favorite scene come up about halfway through the film. The main character drops her kid off at school and the homeroom teacher greets her with:  

Teacher: "Hi - um, listen, Charlotte really needs to get here on time because she really just needs the extra time to settle in."

Mom: [mystified] "We are on time." 

Teacher: [deadpan] “Being on time means being early.”

Parents laugh at this line because they think it's a line meant to satirize the arbitrary and stupid rules teachers impose on parents. 

But as a teacher - the teacher in charge of sixth grade homeroom attendance, no less - I know the truth. I suspect that Judd Apatow just might have the soul of a teacher. 

This line is truly funny; and funny because it's true. 

When your car pulls in to the drop off area thirty seconds before homeroom and you push your kids out of the car at a rolling stop, that’s not on time.

When your child bursts through the school entrance as the minute hand hits the twelve, that’s not on time.

Let me fill you in a middle school student’s morning needs – and keep in mind, I have left out the superfluous stuff in favor of the essentials.

Let's say you drive into the school parking lot at 7:40, a full twenty minutes before homeroom. And let me just say here, well done, you. By the time your kids get out of the car with all of their belongings - backpack, coat, sweater, lunch, history project - it's 7:43.

7:43 First things first. Check zipper, hair, adjust potentially embarrassing adolescent bits, and do a final check for food caught in braces. Check in with friends. Have friends re-check food in braces situation and comment on outfit. Figure out who is absent and why, and recount everything that has happened over the hours since they last checked in with each other on Facebook and Google Chat (but not Twitter, because that's for adult dorks like Mrs. Lahey). This first chapter of the school day can easily take an hour, but as homeroom doors close in :17 minutes, there's only time for the vital information.

7:45 Enter middle school, go to locker, unload books, put lunch away, put math journal on the math teacher's desk, figure out what books are needed for the first couple of periods. In a perfect world, the student sees the loose papers and textbook being squashed under the weight of four other textbooks and organizes those items. Avoid middle school head's eyes as she proceeds to homeroom so she won't notice that students' skirt is too short or her locker is tragically and cataclysmically disorganized.

7:52 Close locker door, if physically possible. Check in with friends again on some of the non-vital issues not covered earlier.

7:57 Move toward homeroom. Return to locker, retrieve forgotten math book.

7:59 Rush out of homeroom for plan book squashed under textbook at the bottom of locker and look for that piece of paper with the French verbs for today's quiz written on it.

8:00 Slip in to homeroom as Mrs. Lahey gives a disapproving look, flips up the doorstop with her toe, and closes the door.

Keep in mind, this schedule is for the kids uninterested in playing foursquare or basketball before homeroom. Some kids really need this time to work out their heebie-jeebies and figure out the daily re-adjustments in the social pecking order that governs middle school. 

So when I mark your child tardy when they arrive as the minute hand hits the 12, I'm not [just] being a nitpicky hardass. First period is going to be a nightmare for the kids who rush in at 7:59. Their brains, bodies, and belongings will be disorganized, and it will take them the twenty minutes they should have had before homeroom to pull themselves together. 

Judd Apatow is right. Being on time does mean being early. 

Radio 101

Yesterday, I recorded my first installment for Vermont Public Radio's Commentaries series. I have wanted to be a part of this program for a long time, particularly as I get to write about the Upper Valley, and what makes this place so special. I wanted my first piece to be a departure from the education and parenting topics I usually cover, so I went with dairy farming and underwear. I figure that's about as 180 as I can go...although dairy farming requires some serious grit. 

My education in milking at Robie Farm happened a while ago, but it provided great fodder for my first 500-word piece. The producer of the Commentaries series, Betty Smith-Mastaler, liked the essay and invited me in to the VPR studio in Norwich (under the King Arthur Bakery!) to record it as an audition piece. I've done radio before, and as I read to my students often, I figured I had the chops to lay that baby down in one take.

But that pesky producer, she had her own opinion on my chops.

Consequently, I spent about a half an hour in Radio 101, taught by Professor Smith-Mastaler. I mentioned this to some of my writer friends, and they asked me to share the wisdom of Professor Smith. So here goes. Radio 101.

First, word count. I already understood the importance of word count, but when an editor or a periodical's submission guidelines page instructs me to aim for 800 words, I can submit 793 or 810 and no one will blink an eye. So when I submitted my piece to Professor Smith-Mastaler at 517 words, I figured I was all set. Not so, she said. In radio, every word is time, and Commentaries has a hard time wall of 3:14. I can cut the piece or she will cut the piece. My choice.

I cut the piece. Killed those darlings until they numbered 497. I thought about adding an "and" or a "however," but figured I was close enough if I was under by a word or two. Or three.


I've done speeches before, and figured I'd bump up the font size a bit for easier reading. While my instinct was right, that only got me part of the way to formatting perfection, radio-wise. Professor Smith-Mastaler sent me some additional tips that would help me read more clearly and fluently.

  1. Always bring the text to the studio. This particular studio has issues with wireless internet, so don't assume you can read off of a screen or print out at the studio. 
  2. Bring two copies, one for you, one for the producer, who will need to take notes on what needs to be re-recorded and if changes are made to the text during recording, she will need to mark up the copy. 
  3. The eye's natural scan width is four inches, so drag the right-hand margin over to 4. The text will look weird, but it really is easier to scan when you are in front of a microphone and a little bit nervous. 
  4. Use 16 point type, and if possible, choose the font used by the series. Commentaries uses Times New Roman. At least I knew that one. One point for me. 
  5. Page numbers should got at the top of the page rather than the bottom. The producer will be referring to them and it's easiest to find them quickly at the top of the page, in the upper right-hand corner. 
  6. Double space after every sentence. There's a reason for this that I will go to in the next section. 
  7. Eliminate all sentence breaks at the bottom of the page. Either shift entire paragraphs down to the next page or raise them up, but make sure the page ends on a terminal punctuation mark. You will be moving the pages after a pause at the end of each page, so you want to make sure you are at a good spot for a long pause. 

Once you get to the studio, hand the producer her copy. She'll likely offer water, but just in case, bring your own. My students have given me a cold, so I had a cup of tea before I arrived.

At VPR, the text goes on a music stand at face height, one page at a time. I laid mine out two pages at a time, thinking I was helping, but I was asked to put it back the way it was, with only one page on the top. When you shift your gaze at all, it changes your distance to the microphone and changes the volume.

While the producer is setting things up, go ahead and warm up. read the first page and just get your tongue working. Before you really get rolling, make sure that you get over the idea that you will be able to nail it in the first take. Not gonna happen.

Professor Smith-Mastaler let me go through it once without stopping me, but I think that was just to allow me to warm up and build my confidence. I thought it sounded pretty good, but again, I was deluded.

She told me that everyone gets very serious when they step in front of a microphone. She mentioned how animated I had been when I arrived and asked me to return to my baseline. Find the personality and lose the dour.

She then filled me in on the reason for the double spacing and a trick I have filed away as the most important tip of the day. She read my first page to me twice while I was watching. The first time, she did not look at me through the glass (she was in the production room, I was in a recording room). The second time, she looked up at me at the end of my paragraphs. The difference was amazing. Her voice...well, it changed somehow, and I felt as if she was talking to me.

She reminded me that people listen to the radio in noisy places - the car, the office, etc. - and I have to reach out and tap them on the shoulder, let them know I am talking to them, telling them a story. Somehow, looking at the producer allows the voice to become personal. Who knows why, but it was an obvious difference.

She told me to imagine the story when I read it. Imagine what it felt and smelled like when I peeled off my poopy, smelly clothing in the mudroom, shat the scrape of the cat's tongue felt like in my palm. And again, she was right. The reading was more vivid. The images shone through much more brightly.

We went through the entire essay twice, and then looped back around to the bits that needed what she called "gloss," or a special something. What words to hit, what pacing to give the parallel construction. She gave me the freedom to re-write the text, but in the end we stuck with what I had on the page.

The entire session took about 45 minutes, but I left with what felt like a semester's worth of knowledge in my head and a list of ideas for my next commentary.

And next time I won't feel like such a rube.

Thank you, Professor Smith-Mastaler, for a great first class.