Young people in the juvenile justice system are the most underserved students in the country. When justice jurisdictions design systems, education is rarely top of mind, despite the fact young people who have been incarcerated are four times more likely to qualify for special education services and more often than not have repeated a grade. It’s no wonder if you are a middle school student and you’ve been arrested, the odds of your graduating from high school decrease.
It doesn’t have to be this way. I have seen how a system of leaders committed to addressing these inequities can buck these trends and help our students believe in themselves and realize their potential.
A critical step is to give our young people a strong, well-resourced schooling experience. Six years ago, I was tasked with re-designing and developing a robust education program for students in New York City’s juvenile justice system. The city had decided to stop sending juvenile students to facilities upstate and to instead create opportunities for them to stay closer to home. Up to then, the model was often to send teachers into secure residences to educate children in their group home basements or around kitchen tables. That was far from ideal. We negotiated for a school building and transported students from group homes to our school every day. Spending this time in a school complex with a computer lab, a gym, a library, and a larger corps of teachers was a normalizing experience for the students.
We knew that to make this school successful, we needed to create a culture where students felt welcomed, engaged and part of a community, despite their coming from separate residences. Essential to achieving this was building a collaborative culture among the school staff. This was not easy given that our team members came from so many city agencies – the department of education, children’s services, school safety, and many foster care agency providers. It took several months of hard work and persistence, but we managed to create the best inter-agency collaborative I have ever been involved with. The leaders played a critical part in making this possible: The commissioners of the Department of Probation and the Administration for Children’s Services led all the planning meetings, which sent a clear message that the success of this program was a high priority.
We addressed both the academic and social-emotional needs of our students. So many of our youth had experienced abuse, neglect, abandonment, or sex-trafficking, so we made sure our staff had trauma-informed care training. Our transition specialists supported students and their families after they returned home.
Given that one-fifth of our students were over-aged 7th and 8th graders, we took the program a step further, developing a citywide middle school program to meet their unique needs. Once our students completed their time in the juvenile justice system, rather than return them to the neighborhood school that clearly hadn’t worked for them before, we created opportunities within existing high schools to accelerate their learning and enable them to graduate with other kids their age. The beauty is, because they are on a high school campus, no one knows they are over-age for their grade. When they finish the middle school requirements, they assimilate right into the high school with a great deal of support.
We have had great success: In 2019, a student who started as an over-aged 8th grader was named valedictorian of his graduating class. High school attendance, course pass rates, state assessment scores, and the graduation rate all are rising significantly.
These successes make you wonder what could have been done differently earlier in their school careers to help our students who clearly have tremendous potential.
This question is always top of mind in my current position as NYC Department of Education Executive Superintendent of Access Schools: transfer schools, District 79, District 88, evening schools, and adult and continuing education. To me, a huge part of the solution is creating a culture of strong leaders. I prioritize forming spaces for our leaders to continuously learn and grow, to be our system’s lead learners so that we can be our best selves and model that for our teachers and students. My own executive coach, Dr. Nancy Gutierrez, President & CEO of the NYC Leadership Academy, helps me fine-tune and focus on my goals and vision and sharpen my leadership skills. I know from first-hand experience that a great principal will not automatically be a great superintendent. There is tremendous learning that comes with that role. On the school level, we work with our principals to identify the strengths of their assistant principals and teachers so they can build strong teams given that some of our principals oversee 23 sites. In that way we are also building a bench of strong leaders.
Then as a strong team we are better able to innovate, to create flexible opportunities for students of all ages to finish their degrees, develop skills they need, including learning English, and get hands-on job training. We find gaps in services, identify underserved communities, and build quality programs to address those needs. I’m so proud that the programs we started many years ago have been sustained and have flourished. I’m equally proud that we follow the mantra, “status quo is never good enough.” Each year we implement big ideas addressing needs which have gone unnoticed for too long.
Leadership matters in all settings, but it is especially important when we are charged with serving the most vulnerable young people. Teens who have been incarcerated are often forgotten or not named in the equity conversation. Often neglected growing up, our students should not be neglected by school systems. We work to give them a voice and to convey with urgency that every second our educators have with our kids is precious and has to count. Each moment is a “teachable “moment, a “reachable” moment.
As told to Jill Grossman
Verta joined the The Leadership Academy in 2018. Prior to that, she designed, managed, and delivered professional learning experiences and programs for sitting and aspiring school leaders at UnboundEd and New Leaders. Verta began her 20-year career in education as a teacher in Prince George’s County Public Schools, and then as a literacy specialist for the New York City Department of Education. She was principal of Bronx Arts for five years and served for several years as a leadership coach for principals and residents at New Leaders. Verta has a B.S. in communications and middle school education from James Madison University, and an M.A. from Teachers College, Columbia University.