Educating incarcerated youth starts at the heart - Albuquerque Journal

Educating incarcerated youth starts at the heart

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

The goal of improving the literacy levels of New Mexico youth in the state’s three secure juvenile lockup facilities is critical, but “you can’t get to a kid’s head, unless you start at their heart,” said Joyce Gormley, deputy superintendent of juvenile justice education for the state Children, Youth and Families Department.

The two centers operated by CYFD in Albuquerque are Camino Nuevo Youth Center and the adjacent Youth Diagnostic and Development Center, which provide education through their combined Foothill High School. In Las Cruces, the John Paul Taylor Center houses the Aztec Youth Academy.

The three schools within the secure facilities use a curriculum that is aligned to state Public Education Department standards, the basics of which are four core courses and two electives.

Students at Foothill High School on the campus of the Youth Diagnostic and Development Center, review a math problem in early November.(Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

“The relationship that our teachers and our staff build with students is beyond any other education institution I’ve worked at,” Gormley said. “We’ve had a lot of members from outside the community, and even national education experts, come in and observe classrooms. They always comment about how the teachers have such great respect and rapport and have built strong relationships with the students. That’s essential in education, but extremely essential when you’re dealing with our population.”

Improving the odds

As part of that relationship, teachers also recognize the importance of “meeting kids where they’re at” and helping them grow in terms of academics, acquisition of life skills or dealing with behavioral health issues, she said. “From there, we work on providing rigorous, engaging, student-centered activities so that they can connect with the content and make gains in math and reading.”

Joyce Gormley

While literacy doesn’t guarantee health, wealth or happiness, “it sure improves the odds,” and conversely, illiteracy doesn’t guarantee involvement in crime, but increases the odds of that as well, said Kurt Steinhaus, Cabinet secretary-designate of the Public Education Department.

“But here’s another thing about literacy: If you practice reading, you get better at it, and that’s as true for first graders as it is for adults,” Steinhaus said. “That’s why I wanted the 2021-22 school year to be New Mexico’s ‘Year of Literacy,’ to remind everyone how important this skill is and to practice it.”

CYFD currently has about 85 youths in its three secure facilities. The majority of them are 17 and 18 years old and most were placed there for a one- or two-year commitment, with about a dozen on what’s called a “youthful commitment,” which will keep them in CYFD’s custody until age 21, Gormley said.

GED, diploma prep

By state law, CYFD is required to provide educational programming to all youth in its care, and the youth are required by law to attend classes.

“Our students, for the most part, are compliant and engaged,” Gormley said. For many of the youth, the courses prepare them to take the GED or acquire a high school diploma.

In determining the literacy level of youth, administrators and teachers at Foothill and Aztec look at existing school transcripts and conduct assessments using a number of measurements, including TABE, Test of Adult Basic Education, which is given when a youth enters the facilities, and just before he or she leaves, Gormley said.

The assessments of the incoming youth show they are on average three to five years below level in math, and two to 3½ years below level in reading, she said.

Foothill High School instructor Mark Richardson works with students during a social studies class. The school is located on the campus of the Youth Diagnostic and Development Center, is one of three secure facilities operated by the Children, Youth and Families Department. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

In addition, about 40% of the students qualify for an individualized educational lesson plan, or IED, “because of some sort of a learning disability or an eligibility that impedes them from accessing the generalized curriculum,” Gormley said.

The TABE scores of some exiting youth show as much as four years growth, she said, although the range, averaged over five years, shows improvement of 2½ years in reading and somewhat lower in math.

Reducing recidivism

Other measurements of success can be found in the increasing percentage of youth who yearly pass the GED, and the decreasing recidivism rate, Gormley said.

In 2015, 71% of youth who took the GED passed; in 2019 it was 86%.

Foothill High School teacher Sean Reynolds talks with students during a classroom session. Juveniles held at the Youth Diagnostic and Development Center are required by state law to participate in education programs. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

In FY 2019, the youth recidivism rate was 44.5%; in FY 2021 it had dropped to 33.4%.

The total cost for CYFD’s secondary education programs last year was $4.7 million, which came directly from the state, and $200,000 from federal grants, Gormley said. Because safety and security is always a priority, dormitories (divided by age and other factors) are never mixed and never exceed 12 youth. Likewise, class size is limited to 12.

“How we function as an agency or how we function as a facility impacts how we provide education,” Gormley said. And unlike education in adult state prisons, “our agency does a great job of funding our educational programs,” she added. “When we have a need, and the need is justified, then the need is filled by the agency.”

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series about education programs and incarceration. The series is part of The Literacy Project, an initiative by the Journal in cooperation with KOAT-TV and KKOB News Radio that focuses on the literacy crisis in New Mexico.

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