Breaking the stereotype: Educating detained youth

By Jeff Knight — 

As adults, we understand the decision making process.  We know good decisions often lead to a favorable outcome, and even one bad choice can potentially affect your life forever.  There are a handful of youth whose bad decisions have ripped them away from life as they know it and landed them into a place few of them choose to be – secure detention.

The Mary Dickerson Juvenile Justice Center (MJDDC) is a 24-bed secure juvenile detention facility located in Camdenton, Missouri.  Usually, there are between 3-12 youth detained at MJDDC, waiting for their cases to be adjudicated in court.  While some are first time offenders, others are familiar faces who have had previous contact with the juvenile justice system.

MDJJC partners with the Camdenton R-III School District to provide educational services to youth while they are detained at the facility.  The average time spent at MDJJC is 8.5 days; some youth are in and out the same day, while others can stay for several months.  No matter the length of stay, every youth is entitled to an education and that is exactly what they get while they are with us.

Most people assume my students are “bad” kids and they are hopeless for one reason or another.   This stereotype couldn’t be further from the truth, at least in my case.  In several instances, I find they are actually good kids who have made a series of bad choices – or at least one very bad decision.  Others may be a product of their environment and could very well be in and out of the system their entire lives.  In either case, it is very rare for me to meet a child who I would characterize as a “bad” kid.

While working with our detained youth, I do my best to provide a sense of normalcy; a regular schedule and familiar learning spaces for students struggling through what may be the worst time of their lives.  I wake up each morning with the goal – and the hope – that I can reach kids teetering on the edge, and help them make a shift in the right direction.

The Juvenile Justice Center and School District Collaboration

Regardless of where a student attends school regularly, while at MDJJC each is considered a member of the Camdenton R-III School District, meaning they have access to the same high-quality education as all of our students.  Just because a student is detained does not mean they should be denied a proper education.

The school district employs one full-time teacher (me), and supplies class materials, computers and access to an online curriculum for students at MDJJC.  If there are ever more than six students in my class at any given time, the district sends a substitute to help.

On every school day, when residents aren’t engaged in other activities, they are in my classroom.  Immediately after breakfast, residents enter a spacious room with six computers and three desks.  Our school day is similar to a traditional school setting; students have specified time to work on English, math, science, and history.  In between, they have lunch, are given small breaks, and participate in recreation time.

At the end of the school day, residents return briefly to their sleeping rooms while there is a shift change for detention staff.  Immediately following shift change, residents return to programming and evening activities.  Outside course curriculum students have access to area youth ministers, and can participate in occasional music lessons.

For many residents, MDJJC is a new and scary experience.  They’re in strange clothes, surrounded by people they don’t know, subject to new rules and expectations, and their contact with the outside world is restricted and supervised.  I find students quickly realize their mistakes and suddenly crave normalcy.  In my eyes, providing a semi-traditional classroom is as close as they’ll get to normal while they are with us.  We have next to no behavior issues and celebrate success often.  At MDJJC, I’m not only a teacher; I’m a coach and a cheerleader to many students struggling to get their life back on track.

In my classroom, students range in age and grade, as well as in skill level and cognitive ability.  While one student might be working on 6th grade English, another may need help on their Trigonometry assignment.  Due to the flexibility of our digital curriculum, Odysseyware, I am able to customize lessons for each of my students to account for this.

Because students are often in and out of the facility so quickly, when they enter MDJJC there is no time for an assessment to gauge where they are in the curriculum or if they are meeting state standards.  When they enter the classroom, I simply ask what they’ve been learning in their classes and that’s where we start.

Bye-bye Paper Binders, Hello Online Curriculum

When I first began teaching at MDJJC, my classrooms were filled with binders of curriculum for each grade and subject.  When a new student arrived at the center, they were handed content from the folders and told to complete the work.  Because our students come from all over mid-Missouri, the binders oftentimes did not closely follow what the students were learning in their home school district.  As I am sure you can imagine, the binders were fairly cumbersome as well.  However, in the event of a power outage, we do have them to rely on.

A lot has changed since those days.  The district adopted Odysseyware as a customizable online credit recovery curriculum, and asked me if it would be a good option for students at MDJJC.  Thanks to its flexibility, I can help them pick up where they left off before arriving in my classroom.  For students in the Camdenton R-III district, credits collected count toward graduation. For students who attend school in another district, a report of all work completed is sent with them once they are released.  After a few days at MDJJC, the majority of my students head back to traditional school.  But for those who will not, we ensure they are on track to take their GED, using online courses as preparation.  Typically, students know whether they’re on track for graduation or not, and in some cases, a high school diploma simply isn’t realistic, so I do my best to help them prepare for the GED while they are in my classroom.

My students often like moving at their own pace without the pressure of a traditional classroom.  An online curriculum is ideal for a detention setting because it is flexible enough to allow students at different grade and ability levels to work independently.  They utilize features like spelling bees, the ‘read-to’ tool, and interactive games.  Students outside of the Camdenton R-III district often comment how they wish their school had a program like Odysseyware because it’s actually fun.  The curriculum perfectly aligns with Missouri state standards, so using it is a no-brainer.

I compare teaching detained youth to coaching my football team.  Every player has different needs and goals, and adjusting on the fly is just the way the game is played.  Though my classroom setting is anything but ordinary, I do my best to educate students who often need it the most.  My job is somewhat easy thanks to strong support from leadership at the Camdenton R-III School District, MDJJC, and flexible, engaging curriculum.

Together, we’re breaking the stereotype of educating detained youth one student at a time.



Jeff Knight has taught detained youth at MDJJC for eight years. After playing college football at the University of Missouri, he graduated from Southwest Missouri State (now MSU) with his education degree. Before teaching at MDJJC, Knight taught in Ozark, Nixa, Lebanon, and Camdenton. In his free time he enjoys spending time with his family and spending time outdoors. He can be reached via email at [email protected]


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