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Navigating school inside and outside San Francisco’s juvenile hall

When you think of school, you might not think of prison. But in 2014, approximately 47,600 young people in California actually attended school inside juvenile hall. Those schools are called “court schools.” And as the number of incarcerated young people in the state continues to decline, class sizes inside these court schools are smaller than they’ve been in years. That means more court school teachers can provide personal attention for some of the state’s most at risk students. But what does education inside a court school look like, and what happens once students are released?


Inside Woodside Learning Center

High school drop out or not -- even inside San Francisco’s juvenile hall -- kids still have to go to class at a court school called Woodside Learning Center.  

Woodside Learning Center looks just like a school, with desks, students, and teachers. The only difference is that students at Woodside have been arrested. Classrooms aren’t grouped by grade level, and most students only stay for two days.  So teachers like Megan Mercurio give lessons students can jump right into, like today’s poetry workshop.

Mike walks to the front of the classroom.

“I am from the firepit, where being sober is no use, no hope,” he starts reading from a poem he wrote. “I am from a family of thieves and junkies with no dads around.”


A probation officer stands in the back, listening in. Around ten other students sit at attention in green sweatshirts and khakis. Mike describes the trauma many kids in custody can relate to.

“I am from abandoned buildings, because I have been abandoned...the devil came from heaven, and I came from hell,” he continues. “So I pray St. Peter lets me in, and frees me from this cell.”

Shrinking class sizes and growing opportunities

This class is small, but there are still three teachers in the room: one ESL instructor, one special needs teacher, and one English teacher. San Francisco Court School Director Alysse Castro says class sizes inside Woodside have been dropping for years.

“It's really nice to be working in this line of work during the time when California and the United States is really re-thinking our obsession with locking people up with little boxes,” Castro says.

But the big challenge for teachers here, she says, is reaching kids in the little time they have. Most students arrive in juvenile hall in crisis mode.


Success inside juvenile hall

“I mean, there's so much on their minds that sometimes science and math can't percolate up to the surface,” she says.

Amy knows that feeling. She was first arrested when she was thirteen.

“I thought I was going to just die young, because of the people around me,” she says. “You could be talking to me, and I'd just like, ‘Uh huh huh’, but it would just be going out the other ear. Trust me, I did not care.”

When her boyfriend was shot and killed, her switch flipped. She wanted to turn her life around, and she started caring more about school. And here at Woodside, she says, success feels more obtainable than it has in public schools.

“Now I actually love it, and I sit in the front now, and I try to learn everything, and if I don't understand, I'll be like, ‘What is that’?”  Amy says. “And some days I get annoying, and they have to explain it, but they still explain it to me.”  

Court school director Alysse Castro says it’s common for some students to actually do better in school when they’re locked up.

“They're sleeping, and they're sober, and they're on a schedule, and they're on a routine,” Castro says. “And they're dealing with adults who are treating them respectfully and warmly and lovingly. And it's horrifying that they need to be incarcerated to have that experience.”  

Lacking data

But Castro says there’s not a lot of data out there to indicate whether or not court schools are working. Stanford Education Professor Bill Koski says that’s a big barrier to reform.

“We can start with the baseline. Are kids going to school? Are kids getting reconnected with their education in some shape or form? There's a lot of different measures, and the thing is, we know almost nothing,” Koski says.

The tools used to measure the success of traditional schools, Koski says, just don’t hold up with court schools. For instance, a recent report from Youth Law Center says 35% of students at Woodside Learning Center end up dropping out of high school, which is much higher than the statewide dropout rate of around 11%. But that data is designed to track kids over a four year period. Students at Woodside usually only stay in juvenile hall for a few days.

“It requires the attention of policymakers to make this a priority, to say, 'We need to figure out what’s happening with these kids and what’s going on with these schools,'” Koski says.

Transition specialists

One promising step is that school districts across the state have recently started hiring transition specialists to keep tabs on kids after they’re released from juvenile hall.

“I think we're trying to really find out, in general, what works, what students need. Is it just, you know, a warm body whom they recognize looking out for them?” Koski asks. “Is it making sure that the new school is prepared? What is it?”

Sam Janeway became San Francisco’s first transition specialist this fall. He’s kind of like an educational case worker. He helps kids in juvenile hall enroll in school after they’re released. He says one of the challenges is that school administrators can be hesitant to take in recently incarcerated kids. His job is to help change that mindset.

“There's schools that don't want these kids, and they feel like the student is potentially infecting the school, or whatever,” Janeway says. “What I try to bring to the table is that I make a big deal out of a student. I'm like, ‘This is an important kid, and this is a kid that can be successful with support.’”

Success outside court school

Right now, Janeway’s working to help around thirty formerly incarcerated young people stay in school. Amy is one of them. She was released a few months ago.


“I was kind of nervous, because I was scared, like if I was going to fail again,” Amy says.

But she had her own transition specialist to help her this time. Janeway helped her enroll in Downtown High School, and still checks up on her. So far, Amy is on track.

“I'm trying to take full advantage, because there's places that do not have nothing like this, that don’t have people like Sam, or this level of help,” Amy says.

Right now, Amy’s expecting to graduate high school next Spring. But other students Janeway’s working with are struggling.

Challenges remain

“I can potentially help every student I work with. So I don't really look at the challenges very often, even when a student gets taken back into custody,” Janeway says. “I think, well, there will be another chance to try and do right by that student.”

For Janeway and other transition specialists, balancing hard work and advocacy with that realism is a constant challenge.

Back at Woodside Learning Center, students are digging into dirt, planting their own seeds. Darren has been here long enough to watch the seeds he planted grow into a garden. And that might be a bigger problem: he’s been cycling in and out of custody for years now.

“They trap you. We're coming in here for crimes we commit, and they expect us to come in here, get these programs, and change our life around,” Darren says. “But it's like, once we leave here, we're going back to the same thing we left.”

For now, he says, his teachers do the best they can with the resources they have. And once Darren is released, there’s at least one person whose job is try to help him figure out what happens next.

This story originally aired in January 2017.