Education Behind Bars: Part
II of a Series
HS Students Face
the Challenges of School in Jail
With the striking contrast between the view of water on one
side and barbed wire on the other, as well as a landscape of
trees and grass interspersed with small buildings and mobile
structures, we traveled the roads of Rikers Island on the way
to a meeting with Principal Dody of Rikers Island Academy.
Passing through heavy security at Rikers to get to the school
site, elements of a regular school setting were noticeable,
with the walls displaying student achievement, a camaraderie
among staff and the students passing through the hallways were
friendly with each other as well as with teachers.
Austin H. McCormick—Island
Academy currently encompasses six sites at Rikers divided
based upon crime classification, with additional separation
based on gender.
The program at the Island Academy focuses not only on academics,
but on psychological services and transition to society.
All major subject areas are taught at the Island Academy,
with teachers certified in each specific area. There are additionally
arts programs as well as vocational educational programs which
includes auto shop, print and barbering classes, and cooking
classes for the girls.
Upon arrival to the program, the educational level of students
is tested through STAR Reading and Math, a computerized assessment
tool which indicates math and reading levels and provides an
outline of suggested instructional goals. According to Principal
Dody, the majority of students arrive at the program with very
deficient skills; the average reading level at admission is
the fifth grade level. IEP conferences are held with parent
participation via telephone. Thirty five to forty percent receive
some form of special education.
Students are additionally screened for psychological problems.
There is a team of mental health counselors composed of 12
social workers, three psychologists and one guidance counselor.
They work with students on a daily basis, with the ratio of
counselor to student at one to 40. There is relatively low
turnover at the school for teachers as well as counselors,
with the average length of employment at nine years.
Counselors focus on life skills and provide transition planning.
They work closely with community organizations, such as CUNY
Catch and Friends of Island Academy, which assist with successful
reentry to society, focusing on job skills and college placement.
Parent involvement at Island Academy is encouraged to the
fullest extent possible. A parent coordinator organizes a parent
support group, although attendance is not high ranging from
8-10. Parent Teacher Conferences are held as well with a better
attendance range of 65-70. When possible, students assist in
maintaining contact with parents through administrative work,
such as stuffing envelopes with PTA information, and students
are encouraged to contact their parents via telephone in the
after school setting.
Progress is being made at the Island Academy. Those students
who score at the ninth grade level in reading and math can
go on to take the GED. Principal Dody stated that last year
there was a 73 percent passing rate, with 237 passing out of
323 having taken the exam.
Among the challenges at Island Academy, the biggest challenge
is the issue of transients. As Rikers is a jail and not a prison,
the length of stay is relatively short, with the average length
of stay being 43 days. To deal with this is with modules of
one week duration, so new students are presented with a fresh
module, where modules from week to week may or not be related.
In general, there are
many obstacles to overcome for students released from Rikers.
The recidivism rate for adolescents is not of the hopeful
numbers it is for the adult prison community receiving education.
The legal and social obstacles for students released from
Rikers is the stigma attached—in seeking
employment, as ex-offenders are required by law to report past
crimes which in the long run extends incarceration. Principal
Dody feels that the stigma must be overcome, but it must be
done within the framework of a balance between helping ex-offenders
return to society and ensuring safety. He also feels that more
programs to assist those released from Rikers should be created. “Kids
are in jail short term. We get them interested. When they leave,
more programs are needed that continue training. They are ripe
for more programs,” explained Principal Dody.
It is worthwhile to invest the proper resources for these
youth, with society as a whole standing to benefit. #