US & World

A DC model for education behind bars in LA County?

L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas at Maya Angelou Academy in Washington, D.C.
L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas at Maya Angelou Academy in Washington, D.C.
Kitty Felde/KPCC

L.A. County’s juvenile justice system is in trouble. Last fall, the county settled a lawsuit that accused educators of sending kids to paint buildings instead of attending classes.

There's a school at a District of Columbia juvenile detention camp that one L.A. County supervisor says is teaching kids the right way.

The lesson in math class at the Maya Angelou Academy is built around creating a business plan for a gelato shop. The high school students wear bright orange polo shirts and khaki trousers – the uniform of youth offenders behind bars.

Sixteen-year-old Gerald has been locked up for eight months. The gelato shop lesson is a good one for him. "I want to have my business," he says. "I want to be in control. You know, give people hours. It’s possible. When it’s due time, it will come."

The classes at Maya Angelou are small, just 10 kids. Principal David Domenici says because detainees are coming and going, the school year is broken down into nine units, each with a report card showing credits earned.

And every month, there’s an awards ceremony. "You want these guys out here to be clapping and cheering for kids who get 'A’s,'" he says, "who get most improved, who win the Barack Obama Leadership Award. You don’t want guys cheering out here for guys who punch people and curse and say nasty things to women. You’ve got to change the culture and the way you do that is by constantly doing this."

This is the second visit to Maya Angelou Academy for L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. He admits there’s a difference in scale between the District of Columbia and Los Angeles – the D.C. juvenile facility has only 60 kids. L.A. County juvenile camps house 2,000.

But Ridley-Thomas says D.C. has figured out that education will keep juvenile offenders from getting caught in the criminal justice system’s revolving door. "I believe we desperately need to pay close attention to best practices and promising practices. L.A. has yet to learn quite a lot about how to get it right. So we’re on a mission to learn from who does it best. And this is one of the places."

L.A. County’s schools for young people in juvenile detention spend about $32,000 per student. The American Civil Liberties Union says that money buys an educational “black hole.” The District of Columbia spends a little more – about $35,000 a year per student – but gets a lot more.

Maya Angelou principal David Domenci says standardized test scores show his students are advancing about a class-and-a-half a year. "On one hand, someone could say, 'Well, you’re working with kids who are really low skilled, so you have such a low base, of course you are able to move them.' We’re fine with that. That’s true. But it’s also the case you’re dealing with folks who for last 10 years of their educational life have never improved a grade level per year and now they’re improving one-and-a-half on an annualized basis." He says he wants to "tell the world that you can do this and you can measure it."

Once they’re out on the street again, about half the D.C. kids stay in school or find a job. That may not sound like success – but the rate used to be just one in four kids.

How does that compare to L.A. County? Supervisor Ridley-Thomas says there’s no way to know. "Regrettably, in the County of Los Angeles, the data is either nonexistent or flawed."

The L.A. County Office of Education, which runs the schools, has been without a superintendent for months. Ridley-Thomas wants the new superintendent to adopt a model like the Maya Angelou Academy.

Gerald, the 16-year-old we met in math class, says it works for him. "They help you," he says. "If you don’t go to school in your community when you’re out there, this can help you. You learn different things. You learn something new every day."

L.A. County has until October to show the federal Department of Justice how it plans to improve the education it provides to juveniles behind bars.