D.C. youth justice agency's school improvements deemed 'remarkable'

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2010

The monitor overseeing the court-ordered reform of the District's juvenile justice agency said in a report filed Thursday that the city has staged a "remarkable" turnaround in how it educates juveniles in long-term detention and had moved a step closer to ending a long-running class-action lawsuit.

Once marked by a dearth of certified teachers and a lack of appropriate special-education services, the school serving sentenced juveniles was turned over to a private foundation three years ago and has become a model educational program for a juvenile correctional facility, the monitor, Grace M. Lopes, said.

In a 54-page report filed in D.C. Superior Court, Lopes said her educational expert, Carol Cramer Brooks, had conducted an assessment of the school over several months in 2009 and 2010 and concluded that the school was one of the "best programs" Brooks had ever seen. The school, Brooks said, has a strong, committed staff, a low student-teacher ratio, a well-defined curriculum and an abundance of energy and creativity among the faculty.

Called the Maya Angelou Academy, the school is operated by the See Forever Foundation, which also runs the two-campus Maya Angelou Public Charter School in the District. The academy is housed at New Beginnings, the detention facility that the District opened in Laurel last year for long-term juvenile detainees, and its bright, modern space would be the envy of many parents who send their children to D.C. public schools.

While the new home certainly bolstered the school's standing, the changes began in 2007, soon after See Forever was contracted to take over the school, called the Oak Hill Academy, and which had been perhaps the most troubled part of the notorious Oak Hill detention center. In the late 1990s, the school was briefly placed in receivership, and as recently as 2005 and 2006, the monitor was reporting that the school was racked by violence, disorder and chronic student absenteeism and lacked any functional administrative infrastructure.

Under pressure from the court, a sweeping reform effort was launched by then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) in 2005 with the hiring of Vincent N. Schiraldi to lead the new Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. In 2007, See Forever was brought on to take over the school at Oak Hill and within months, the monitor was seeing signs of change, with a "dynamic, creative team of teachers."

For DYRS, the report is a boost to its efforts, which have been faulted repeatedly by critics who disagree with the agency's emphasis on rehabilitation. A recent run of high-profile crimes involving juveniles has heightened their criticism.

"Though we realize there is more work to be done, we are very encouraged by our progress and DYRS will continue to work hard to help young people succeed in school, go to college, and prepare for the world of work, all of which results in safer neighborhoods for everyone," DYRS interim director Marc A. Schindler said in a statement.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who as a member of the council championed the reform effort, praised the progress noted in the monitor's report. "DYRS has transformed its school system -- which was among the worst in the country -- and turned it around to meet this administration's goal of having a world-class education system for D.C.'s young people, regardless of where they are in our city."

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