Kane County Juvenile Justice Center program offers college, high school credit

Through a double set of locked doors at the Kane County Juvenile Justice Center in St. Charles, past the empty indoor basketball courts and around the corner, a group of teens were discussing what they had learned about themselves in class one recent morning.

One discovered he was interested in more types of jobs than he thought.

One learned more about extroverts.

One learned the jobs he thought he wanted were not on a list recommended for his personality.

The teens, clad in red or white long-sleeved shirts, blue sweatpants and tan plastic sandals, had landed at the juvenile detention center for gun charges or accusations of theft, misdemeanors or felonies. Some were waiting to go home. Some were waiting for trials.

They were wrapping up a lesson on the Myers-Briggs personality test, part of a dual high-school and college-credit course offered through Elgin Community College on exploring careers and college majors. It is part of a program being piloted this summer at the juvenile detention center that, along with the center's regular academic classes, offers elective courses and dual credit options.

The grant-funded program – part of a partnership between the Juvenile Justice Center, the college and the Kane County Regional Office of Education, which works with other organizations to oversee education at the justice center – is designed to broaden the mindsets of the kids and teens at the center, program organizers said. After the first session, some students told course instructor and Elgin Community College employee Darlene Harris they were ready to finish high school or get a GED. Some said they were ready to get on a path to college, she said.

"Our young people don't know what they don't know," Juvenile Justice Center school Principal Ivars Spalis said. "So this broadens their horizons to the opportunities that are out there as far as careers, higher education, what it takes to succeed in college."

The Juvenile Justice Center has, in recent months, typically housed about 40 kids and teens whose average length of stay is 14 days, Spalis said.

Teens who enroll in the dual credit program – this session, there are nine between the ages of 15 and 18 – must meet a certain reading level and must remain at the detention center long enough to complete the two-week class. They must also be vetted for security concerns, such as gang involvement, whether they have a history of conflict with others in the class, or whether a co-defendant will be in the class, Rich Grenda, special education coordinator at the Juvenile Justice Center, said.

Last session, three students didn't complete the College 101 course on student success, Harris said. Four of the first-session students returned for the second course on exploring college and careers.

During one recent class, some students said they enrolled in the course to make up high-school credits they would need to graduate. One said he planned to go to college, and needed to stay on track.

One 17-year-old from Kane County said he enrolled in the course because he thinks it will help him in the future, and it will look good for court. He doesn't like sitting around doing nothing, he said.

The Beacon-News is not listing the names, hometowns or criminal charges of teens enrolled in the course to protect their identifies because they are juveniles.

The Kane County teen has already been at the juvenile justice center for some time, and isn't sure how much longer he will be there. But he wants to go back to high school and then, maybe, to college to become a doctor, he said.

"I just feel like, my past experiences, saving lives is something I want to do," he said.

The pilot program comes after then-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder issued guidance in December 2014 designed to strengthen juvenile justice education programs.

"For youth who are confined in juvenile justice facilities, providing high-quality correctional education that is comparable to offerings in traditional public schools is one of the most powerful – and cost-effective – levers we have to ensure that youth are successful once released and are able to avoid future contact with the justice system," Duncan and Holder wrote at the time in a letter to chief state school officers and state attorneys general. "High-quality correctional education, training, and treatment are essential components of meaningful rehabilitation because these equip youth with the skills needed to successfully re-enter their communities and either continue their education or join the workforce."

A spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, which does not oversee the Kane County Juvenile Justice Center, said no state-run youth facilities offer dual credit programs.

Often, the kids Spalis sees come through the Juvenile Justice Center school have been told or convinced themselves they "can't" – can't do math, can't get a diploma, they're a failure, he said. And at the beginning of the first session, some students were "a little scared" when they saw the syllabus and requirements, and wanted to quit, he said.

School staff worked with the students to help them learn what success feels like, build self confidence and learn strategies to succeed in college, he said. After their morning courses, students have a study hall in the afternoon with a juvenile justice center paraprofessional or teacher to help guide them through assignments.

The dual credit program fits into the Juvenile Justice Center school's mission to create a positive learning environment, help them transition back to public schools and allow opportunities for them to make up class credits to stay on track, Spalis said.

"The emphasis is on rehabilitation in the court, and also in our school," Spalis said. "As opposed to punishment."

Elizabeth Roeger, dean of developmental education and college transitions at Elgin Community College, said it will be particularly helpful for students that they take courses focused on organization and time-management skills and emotional learning, or making good choices and building self esteem. The course could help students understand that they have the ability to change the way they think, she said.

For Harris, the courses are about showing her Juvenile Justice Center students that they are able to complete high school and college.

The courses have not been without frustrations for Harris – she recalled one student during the first course who was able to do the work, and who wrote in a journal about wanting to do better in school, but then dropped the class.

But, as Harris remembered it, another student talked at the end of the first course about getting a GED. The student had finally completed something, Harris remembered the student saying.

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