By Sarah D. Sparks
There are no guardhouses or concertina-topped fences around the Wyoming Girls School. There’s no need; the correctional facility nestles on a rural road off Interstate 90, almost dead-center of the state at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains, and no student has tried to run away in the last seven years.
But the school’s openness also highlights its deeper push to help its students consider themselves students again, and think of their educational future after prison. In the past five years, the Girls School has become part of a thin but spreading network of correctional education groups working to make their facilities truly a part of K-12 education.
It’s an uphill fight against a long history of notoriously poor education for the nearly 50,000 students in juvenile prisons. An Education Week Research Center analysis of federal civil rights data for 594 of the 633 juvenile justice-facility education programs operating in 2013-14 found their students receive an average of 26 hours a week of instruction—but 15 percent of schools average less than 20 hours a week, and, in some schools, instructional time may be as little as an hour or two.
The same data show big differences in curriculum, too, according to a U.S. Department of Education analysis. Only 28 percent of justice facilities offered Algebra 2, versus 78 percent of all high schools, and 48 percent offered geometry, compared to 84 percent of regular high schools. All told, fewer than half of juvenile justice schools offer all the core courses students need to graduate, and more than 60 percent of the students who return to their communities drop out of school altogether.
“We have tens of thousands of children who are simply outside our [school] accountability mechanisms. … They simply disappear; they are invisible,” said Zoe Savitsky, the deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “We’re giving states millions and millions of dollars ostensibly to provide an equitable education with, in many cases, nothing to show for it.”
Students here do want something to show for their time.