Monday, 2 May 2011

Bars To Education: Officials, Advocates See Real Opportunity For Reform

In the third story in our week-long series on schools in jails, our education reporter Lindsey Christ looks at why officials and advocates agree this may be a golden moment for reform.

Prison schools are an education system within the school system within the jail system and the bureaucracy is staggering. It's no wonder the schools are hard to reform.

Almost a dozen agencies and several labor unions are involved -- including the Department of Education, the Department of Probation, the Department of Correction, the Administration for Children's Services, the Department of Juvenile Justice, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Department of Social Services, the Office of Children and Family Services, the State Department of Correctional Services, the State Education Department and the U.S. Department of Justice.

For the schools to work, critics say the systems must be consolidated and agencies must cooperate.

"Every city agency has a piece of Rikers and yet there's no coordination," says Donald Murphy, a former teacher on Rikers Island.

Yet officials and advocates say right now, the planets may be aligned for real change.

"There's huge juvenile justice reform underway," says Tamara Steckler, a Legal Aid Society advocate for juvenile rights. "That reform, for the first time in 25 years that I've been involved, seems to involve every major player. Every major stakeholder is around the table, to affect meaningful reform in the juvenile justice system."

"I don't think I've ever been more optimistic," says DOE official Timothy Lisante. "This is my 33rd year in the system, 23rd year working on Rikers Island and I think it's because of the interagency collaboration.... I don't think we've ever had this many exemplary leaders as commissioners. That makes me excited."

Still, some teachers and students say the jailhouse culture can never be conducive to a healthy school culture.

"We can't control what happens with the Department of Correction," says former Rikers Island teacher Nicole Greaves. "So if they're woken up at 3 o'clock in the morning for a search, sometimes they're kept up for hours. They have to stand there holding their mattress while their cell is being searched. And school doesn't start until 8 o'clock in the morning. So they're up most of the night, so by the time they come to school they want to sleep."

"It's regular school, but it's still jail, so you can't really get into school like that," says former Rikers Island inmate Devon Stephens. "Some people get into school more, but sometimes you've got to watch your back. You might be small or dumb and somebody will hate on you and want to fight.... Someone's telling you what to do, when to eat, when to shower, when to go to bed and then you're going to get tired of it."

Officials and administrators say they're tired of what they consider to be excuses.

"It seems like there's a real sense of urgency on the part of all of those agencies to get that right," says Superintendent of Alternate Schools Cami Anderson. "And that alignment of mission and everyone's recognition, you know, that education is sort of a key lynch pin. We want to capitalize on that."

"[W]e can have one pair of glasses and whoever puts those glasses on gets to can see the same things, because we are speaking the same language," says Commissioner of Corrections Dora Shiro.

These officials are determined to seize the moment and figure out how to fix the schools.
By: Lindsey Christ

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