Dear Senator Portman, Senator Brown, and Congresswoman Fudge,
I spent this past school year teaching at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center. I’m sure that you have preconceived notions about what the school and students are like. I can guarantee that your predictions and expectations would evolve after a visit to my classroom.
I work with 15-17 year old male students. Many of them have had childhoods filled with tragedy and have faced obstacles that have left them feeling as if there are no options for them except a life on the street. Most complain about school because it is not designed for students who like to learn with their hands, who can’t sit still for extended lengths of time and be quiet, who are intellectually gifted, or who don’t want to go to college. Instead of changing the system to meet the needs of these most vulnerable students, or providing resources and instituting funded policies that would assist these young men, they are faced with a system often endorsed by politicians that feeds a school-to-prison pipeline.
With all of the research we have about brain development throughout every stage of life, it is inexcusable that we treat these young men as if they have the capacity to make sound adult decisions, particularly when the majority haven’t been given strong social guidance during their crucial developmental years. Instead of endorsing a system of high stakes standardized testing that pushes these students out of schools and bores them into behavior problems that can result in criminal charges, our students need wrap around services such as access to mental health care, addiction treatment, social workers, mentors, nutrition and full healthcare access, and an opportunity to learn in an environment that doesn’t further punish them for poverty or instability in their homes. Families need this support from conception to graduation, not just K-12.
I have had students flourish in my class under the direction of our administrator. They have gone from being chronologically behind grade levels, to being caught up on their high school credits during the time they are incarcerated. These successes give them something that they are lacking in the segregated, impoverished neighborhoods from which most of them begin their academic careers: hope. These achievements can only occur because I have the freedom to design curriculum on an individual basis for my students, the opportunity to design instruction based on student interests and the most recent educational research, and because I am trusted by my administrator to try strategies that I believe may assist my students. Being confined by strict curriculum scripts, a narrow focus on passing high stakes standardized tests, and zero tolerance discipline policies that exist in traditional high schools would only cause further detriment to these students who need the best instruction the most. I am also trusted to adapt my instruction as needed, to collaborate with my partner who teaches the same age group, and to not only learn from successes, but from attempts that were not necessarily as successful as I had hoped.
One student I had this year began his time in my class unwilling to do a lot of work in school. After a little time with us, he began to realize that he was surrounded by people who care, people who have his best interest in mind and heart, and is in a facility that will support him, his education, and his teacher. Through his hard work and some incentives negotiated between myself and the detention officers, the student is now a senior instead of a sophomore, has passed 4/5 state tests, and will not leave our administrator alone about how many credits he has and still needs to graduate. Even in his challenging situation, he now has hope. He has experienced academic success and can now envision possibilities. What if our entire education system was structured to provide this same feeling for all of its stakeholders? What if not only students, but teachers, parents, and the communities that some of these most vulnerable, pushed-out students come from were in a culture of hope instead of one that seeks to marginalize, punish, and contain?
The resources, small classes, and wrap-around services provided to our young men should not be exclusive to a detention center. These supports must be provided to all schools that need them, so that some day my school does not have a detained juvenile population to serve any more. Politicians, policy makers, and wealthy elitists need to stop trying to further deform our education system with mandated testing and pseudo accountability, and instead focus on research based strategies in existence for decades that will adapt schools to fit students’ needs. The damage to students and failure of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top is evident when you walk into our school, or around the community in which we are located. I implore you to come visit my classroom, hear our stories, and meet the citizens that your legislative reforms, and needed reforms, impact every day.
Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith
Refuse of Cuyahoga County