The jail’s educational program is a little-known entity within Fairfax County Public Schools, a place where troubled youths work toward high school diplomas and credit their teachers with saving their lives from ruin.
In a recent visit, detention center officials, teachers and students provided a rare glimpse into the education of young people who have run afoul of the law. It is a program that offers opportunity to youths with few options and that grants the students hope for better days ahead.
Francisco Ramirez, 18, who has spent about three years in the jail’s education program, said it has been extremely valuable because of the structure it provides his life. Expelled from Fairfax County schools and having struggled with drugs and family problems, he said he hopes to break away from his past with the help of education.
“If I was out right now, I’d be in a car driving around with my friends, under the influence,” Ramirez said. “I’m glad I’m here. I’m safe here.”
The center had 44 inmates on one day last week, juveniles whose alleged crimes included assault, drug possession and grand theft auto. The school’s principal, Eric Shaver, said about 500 to 600 students attend the program each year. For some of the inmates, the majority of their schooling occurs within the Juvenile Detention Center, where they are either awaiting trial or serving short sentences.
“These are beyond at-risk kids — these are kids in crisis,” said Shaver, 42. “But we believe in second chances. We believe in forgiveness.”
Like other teenagers in Fairfax County secondary schools, the inmates attend classes five days a week, studying science, math, art, history and English.
One difference, Shaver said, is that, compared with other schools, “we’ve got the best attendance in Fairfax County.” Enrollment for the inmates is compulsory.
Security is paramount inside the facility. Every door is locked. Cameras hang in every room. A small incident — such as a missing pen — can cause the entire building to be searched.
Students are supervised by counselors — the burly correctional officers who oversee daily life at the center.
Opened in 1982, the center is a county institution, but the school is funded through a grant from the Virginia Department of Education. The school’s 18 teachers are Fairfax County Public Schools employees.
Shaver said he recruits teachers who have the right background and experience. He said about half of the students are eligible for special education and about a third are learning the English language. The majority of the students are black and Hispanic, and many of the inmates are associated with gangs, Shaver said.