By Francesca Berardi
Before Malik was locked away in a juvenile prison in Woodsbend, a small town tucked into Kentucky’s Appalachian Mountains, he didn’t care much about school. No one in his immediate family has a high school diploma and his teachers, it seemed, only cared about the successful students.
Malik, who is 18, spent a year and a half at Woodsbend for burglary and robbery. His experience in juvenile detention completely shifted his perspective on education. The game changer was his encounter with Stephen McKenzie, a teacher who earned Malik’s trust by showing him that he wouldn’t give up on him during a course in chemistry. To help him get comfortable with the material, McKenzie set up a makeshift lab just for Malik: a project that requires extra imagination in a juvenile facility since many chemicals and objects are banned. “He showed me how to tell volumes using cups full of water and different weights,” Malik says.
The day Malik completed the chemistry course, McKenzie and other members of the staff borrowed a lab coat from the facility’s nurse and brought it to him. “He was holding a beaker and he was … just smiling,” McKenzie recalls of the moment, which they photographed.
Malik’s academic turnaround is not an isolated story at Woodsbend or other juvenile facilities in Kentucky. In 2013, the state revamped its approach to education through a combination of new strategies: It expanded the use of online education without forgoing in-person instruction and shored up vocational programs. The budget remains the same, it’s just being used more creatively.
This is part of a national effort to transform schooling in juvenile education centers. Increasingly, officials are realizing that incarcerated youth are in a unique position to buckle down and focus on school—even if they’ve been wayward or absent students in their former lives. While incarcerated, students like Malik are, in effect, a captive audience with little else to occupy their time. Some of them experience an epiphany of sorts when, separated from past living conditions and habits, they can finally recognize and appreciate the importance of education in forging a different path.