Keith Partner, 18, has been at L.A. County's Challenger youth probation camp four times since he was 15. “I seen a lot of changes there,” Partner said. “It went from good to bad, to bad to good…For me, I seen that it changed by more supports…little stuff to keep us motivated.”
What was once considered one of the country’s worst probation camp schools, beset by a federal lawsuit, negative inspection reports and an ongoing parade of monitors, is slowly emerging as a possible model for teaching incarcerated youths.
It's a place that's trying to move away from a culture of punishment and coercion to one of hope and cooperation. Students seem to be responding.
Tucked behind a state prison in the dusty high desert of Lancaster, the Challenger Memorial Youth Center is Los Angeles County’s largest probation facility. Each of its six camps is named after an astronaut who died in the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster; the school, Christa McAuliffe High, takes its name from the teacher who was on board.
But Challenger has also become synonymous for the major class-action federal lawsuit filed against officials of the L.A. County’s Office of Education and the county’s Probation Department in 2010 by the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, the ACLU, Public Counsel and the Disability Rights Legal Center.
The suit alleged that the facility was systematically denying young people their fundamental right to an education by graduating a student who could not read his own diploma, locking students in solitary confinement (sometimes for months) and haphazardly kicking students out of class.
A 2011 settlement agreement requires monitoring and quarterly reports by a team of experts over the next four years who check on 13 areas of reform, including literacy, instruction and special education. A monitor is now at Challenger several times a month, sometimes on a weekly basis.
“There’s a lot of pressure on everybody,” said school Principal Marsha Watkins. “We live in a fishbowl pretty much. But the real bottom line is it comes down to kids. ... We weren’t doing what we needed to do for kids, and now we are. And we’re getting better and better … at it every day."