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School of Second Chances

The teachers at Oak Hill Academy approach their jobs with the faith that even the most hardened juvenile delinquents can achieve -- and the knowledge that many still won't

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By Karen Houppert
Sunday, April 12, 2009; Page W18

The six teenage boys, incarcerated at the District's Oak Hill juvenile detention facility in Laurel file into their classroom after lunch one late January afternoon. They are surprised to see strangers -- five women and two men -- sitting in the chairs that the boys typically occupy.

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The students find some empty seats and shrug out of their matching brown coats and mismatched scarves. They are curious about the visitors in a lean-back, fold-your-arms, prove-it kind of way.

"I'm James Forman," begins a 40-something man. "I'm a professor at Georgetown Law School and -- "

"You related to the James Forman?" interrupts 17-year-old Carleto Bailey.

"I'm James Forman Jr."

"That your father? James Forman your dad?" Carleto demands.

"Yes, I -- "

"Wasn't he some big civil rights guy? NAACP? Or SNCC?"

"SNCC," Forman says, seemingly surprised that Carleto has heard of his father, who was executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for years in the 1960s before becoming active with the Black Panthers.

"He's a good guy," Carleto continues. "You tell him that."

Forman smiles. "He passed a few years ago, but he would be happy to hear this," the professor says. He scans the room. The Oak Hill students, all African American, are dressed identically in khaki pants and royal-blue polo shirts. They have chosen seats on the edges of the room and, after sitting down, have pushed their chairs back as far as possible against the wall.

Forman's Georgetown law students -- African American, Arab, Latino, Caucasian -- are in jeans and sweaters. They lean forward, intent and maybe a little bit nervous. "I teach a class on juvenile justice at the law school," Forman continues. "And I thought this would be a really good way for law students to learn about juvenile justice. There is a certain amount you can learn from reading, but you also need to see and experience things. So I thought they would learn a lot from coming out here and hearing about your experiences."

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