What’s different about how Los Angeles teaches juvenile offenders?

Challenger School

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Keith Partner, 18, is at Disney Concert Hall on a summer afternoon with his 1-year-old daughter celebrating his high school graduation. Partner got out of Challenger two weeks earlier. He has been at Challenger 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. LACOE got more programs, woodshop programs, more activities to do inside…little stuff to keep us motivated.”

Challenger school

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Challenger youth probation camp was once synonymous with failure. Now it could be emerging as a U.S. model, if it can maintain momentum and avoid more budget cuts.

Challenger School

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Keimond, 18, expertly measures out pieces of wood, marking them with a pencil. He is working on making a cabinet and had already finished some bookshelves in the camp's brand new building skills program. The shop rivals any high-tech woodshop outside the camp’s walls, except that the equipment is attached to the tables.

Challenger school

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A probation officer sits inside the doorway of a classroom keeping an eye on students in class at Challenger youth probation camp.

Challenger School

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A student sits at a flat-screen computer in L.A. County's Challenger probation camp's new AdvancePath Academy, the first such credit-recovery program in a lockup environment.

Challenger school

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Over the last year, Challenger youth probation camp has changed from a place where books were banned in dorms to one where there is a library and daily silent reading sessions after lunch. L.A. County Office of Education Superintendent Arturo Delgado has helped oversee the reforms.

Challenger School

Michael Juliano/KPCC

Marsha Watkins is the principal of Christa McAuliffe High School at L.A. County's Challenger youth probation camp. Watkins has worked to revitalize the reform effort. Observers worry her departure after this year will derail progress without proper planning.


Though the Challenger youth probation camp is run by Los Angeles County's Probation Department, it is the county’s Office of Education that is mandated by the state to provide an education for these students.

In the past, that has led to problems, like when behavior or security concerns prevented access to students. Over the last year, however, communication has drastically improved.

“It’s kind of like mom and dad — you really have to communicate daily, or the kids are going to split you up on things," school principal Marsha Watkins said. “So we really, really worked together on everything. We don’t always agree. They’ve got one agenda, we’ve got another agenda, but we have a higher agenda.”

An added obstacle is the fact that the student population is so transient, few stay for longer than six months, said L.A. County Office of Education Superintendent Arturo Delgado.

“So the real challenge then is to be able to bring programs in that [add] value to that student in that short amount of time,” Delgado said.

New methods

Probation and education officials have trained together under a new “behavior management model” called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports.

The program has landed Challenger in a study funded by the U.S. Department of Education that evaluates the effects of it in juvenile corrections.

Since January, PBIS has slowly reduced the numbers of students written up for bad behavior from dozens a day to as few as two. Staff put up posters in classrooms illustrating proper classroom behavior.

“We assumed kids knew what was expected of our kids in the classroom, but that was not true,” said Kimberly Humphries, assistant principal for special education. “Because our kids have not traditionally been in school. They’ve been kicked out, they don’t go.”

The change is one example of the biggest shift that has taken place at Challenger: a change from a “punitive coercive culture” to a more “positive cooperative culture,” said Watkins.

“Instead of constantly catching the kids when they were doing something wrong, we needed to flip that, and start to catch the kids when they were doing things right,” Watkins said. “A lot of our attention was being focused on the kids who were not behaving, … and there were probably a lot more kids behaving.”

Students who behave well may be selected for monthly awards ceremonies with a luncheon banquet. Students also earn points for good behavior; the top 15 each month can earn prizes that include “Reptacular” animal shows, a mobile video game truck or a rock-climbing wall.

Ben Conway, a children’s rights attorney with Public Counsel, said the efforts are changing the culture within the facility, but also among the students themselves, who don’t want to lose the incentives and self-police.

Students who were previously thrown packets of work under their doors in the “SHU” (Security Housing Unit), or solitary confinement area, are now taken to a separate classroom. That class has had its numbers drop from at least 20 last July to about half a dozen each day, Watkins said.

One of the biggest reform coups has been a change to the contract with the teachers’ union Los Angeles County Education Association, which is expected to reduce the number of teacher absences.

Instead of teachers taking vacation at any time throughout the year and leaving up to 60 percent of the staff as substitute teachers, teachers will now work 11 months and take a 12th month off. The school has also trained a group of substitutes who have gone through professional development similar to the regular teaching staff.

The changes have brought a renewed sense of mission among teachers, who were before often disgruntled to find themselves sent out for “freeway therapy” to Challenger. The new attitudes have also brought higher expectations for their students, administrators said.

“Now this is a real school,” said David Sapp, an attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, which was a party to the Challenger lawsuit. “It wasn’t before. It was structured babysitting.”

New attitudes

It costs roughly $139,500 per year, per bed, to house and educate minors at a county juvenile detention camp, according to county officials. Traditionally, it is more expensive than housing adults, because of the requirements to educate and efforts to rehabilitate youths, said Peter Leone, a professor of special education at the University of Maryland.

Leone is a national expert at delivering education in detention settings and serves as a monitor in this case. He has been involved in monitoring and reform at dozens of facilities for 25 years.

"There will be people who … say: 'What are they doing all this stuff for these kids for? My kid didn't get in trouble and he didn't have access to this kind of stuff. ... It's a waste of money,’” Leone said. “But it's a whole lot less expensive to get these kids on the right track, to support them, help them become more confident young men, than to have them potentially in and out of juvenile corrections. That's more expensive. They're not taxpayers. Then we have to house them, provide for them.

“I don't think the public understands that. I think we're still in that 'get tough on crime,' 'three strikes you’re out' mentality that's much more punitive," Leone said.

Humphries noted there's been progress.

“We had a kid today who said 'I like it here, I get fed, I have fun,'” Humphries said. “But on the same token, the taxpayers might say, well we’re rewarding kids for bad behavior. But we’re teaching them a different way of life, when they get here. We teach them social skills, we’re teaching them that if they are good there are rewards … and they’re actually graduating from high school and learning skills that are going to make them a better citizen when they leave here.”

What’s ahead

Despite the successes thus far, much more work remains to be done. Leone and his colleagues’ report in July found that though the county had made significant headway, it still needed to improve in multiple areas, including data reporting to effectively track and document academic growth and what happens once students leave camp, vocational programming for all students and increasing the rigor of instruction.

Delgado said he and his cabinet are already working on defining grades and ensuring that they are accurate measures.

“So if they get a C, it’s a solid C; if they get an A it’s because they really earned that A here,” Delgado said. “If we’re giving them false hope here and they go out to the real world and find that they’re really not at that level that we were saying they were at here, they’ll revert back to some old habits. So we need to give them that hope and ability to be able to go out and say, ‘I can compete anywhere.’”

The camp’s reform task force is also working to create partnerships with outside community groups to try to bring in their support, officials said. Possible groups include the Rotary Club, the Boy Scouts of America and Boeing, among others, Watkins said. She is also looking at trying to work with Antelope Valley College to introduce some online college-level courses for students.

“There are employers out there, and our kids are eventually going to go out into the world, so maybe a kid with a tattoo isn’t going to frighten them so much,” Watkins said. “Maybe they’d consider hiring them once they get to know them. It’s breaking down the barriers, changing peoples’ perceptions. Yes, these kids have done terrible things, but they’re still children and should not be looked at as adults that are finished and done. We have a responsibility as a community to help these young people get on a different path.”

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).

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