Fri July 6, 2012
Out of Jail: The Challenge for the RCSD When Students Return to Society
Every day, students who should be in a city school classroom, emerge from their Monroe County jail cells to learn.
“There's a range from kids that stay there for a week,” said Rochester City School Superintendent, Dr. Bolgen Vargs. “And there are kids that stay there for a longer period of time.”
More than 1,600 city school kids land in the county jail each year. Vargas says legally, the district has to provide teachers and an academic program for its incarcerated students. And he says most of them go back to their schools when they’re released. But it’s that transition, from jail back to the real world, where School Commissioner Van White says the district is failing these students.
“There are thousands of kids that come in and out of that system,” White said. “But when they walk out that door there's nobody watching.”
Just to clarify, people are watching, but not many, not even a handful. Turns out the district has only two employees to assist kids when they leave the county jail and head back to their schools. Van White told board members at a recent meeting that budget reflects priorities. And he says the district has to do more if it’s serious about helping these kids stay on track.
“We provide one-on-one workers or five-on-one workers for our Hillside kids, kids who have Cs because we think they need the support. But yet when these kids come out of the Monroe County Jail or DFY, we only have two transitional workers for them,” said White. “What they're thinking of our two workers to their thousands of kids, they think we're saying F-U to them.”
“The transition workers I have now really are planning, looking at homeless, looking at kids that have mental health issues that are really incarcerated because they have other issues,” said Margaret Porter, leader of the district’s Youth and Justice Program. “And of course moving them to an environment where they're going to be successful.”
Porter says she’s lucky to have two employees to help students, because just a few years ago, she didn’t have any.
“I have to say that in the past administration there were board people advocating, also our past superintendent came forth and talked, went to the jails and talked about the needs,” Porter said. “Life needs, survival needs, primary care needs that supersede academics and go hand in hand with academics.”
Superintendent Vargas says he understands two transition workers won’t cut it when it comes to meeting all those needs, times 1,600 kids, every year. He says meeting that challenge isn’t about hiring more staff but getting the entire district & local community involved.
“The culture I'm trying to create is not a single individual is responsible for transition of this group of young people back into the district,” Vargas said. “The responsibility is for all of us to attend to their need.”
Vargas says in part that can be accomplished at New Beginning. It’s a program that started last fall as a partnership between the district’s Youth & Justice Program and the Center for Youth.
“It's a lot different you know, with less kids,” said Kyle Chambers, a student at New Beginning. “There's more time for one on one with teachers.”
The program caters to students like Chambers. He spent a short sting in jail and when he returned to his school, he said he couldn’t keep his grades up, until he joined New Beginning.
“I've got honor roll, you know I've never had honor roll,” Chambers said. “It makes me feel that I wanna keep pushing forward to be more mature you know, and be more of a man that I know I can be.”
But the program only has room for about 60 students. Superintendent Vargas says the district’s new All City High School opening in the fall will be another good environment for students who have spent time in jail. All City will offer more flexible scheduling, a credit recovery program, and one counselor and one social worker for every one hundred students.
Margaret Porter says this summer the district is looking for ways to add workers to her team. It all comes down to finding grants to help with the cost.
Commissioner Van White says it’s a move that would serve the district well for more reasons than one. He says for starters, it could help increase the graduation rate.
“I think for many people this is a throw-away population. And what they don’t realize is and I tried to suggest this as a former prosecutor, these young men will come back to haunt you if you neglect them now,” White said. “So if for no other reason we ought to be paying attention because it's the old adage pay me now or pay me later.”