Educating youth behind bars

Residents of local juvenile detention center learn with digital curriculum system

Educating youth behind bars

It’s 8:30 am. Tuesday. The students at Stevenson High School and the residents of the Hulse Detention Center at the Robert W. Depke Juvenile Justice Complex are ready to begin their school day.

Located on Milwaukee Avenue, a mere 2.5 miles away from Stevenson’s sprawling campus, the Depke Center lies well within the boundaries of Lincolnshire’s District 125 and District 103. However, aside from starting at the same time, there exist few other commonalities between the two schools.

During the 2016-2017 school year, over 4,100 students attended Stevenson. With 833,000 square-feet of space and a 21-classroom addition on the way, Stevenson is the the largest high school in Lake County. Meanwhile, the Depke Center, according to its 2015 SMAART Performance Report, used its three classrooms, with a fourth completed in July 2016, to educate a population of approximately 34 residents ages 10 to 17 during the 2015-2016 school year.

According to its website, the Depke Center “provides temporary secure custody for youth who have been charged with a delinquent act and who have been determined a high risk to re-offend or who would likely flee the jurisdiction of the court if released.”

At the Depke Center, school is held year-round, five days a week, from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Classes are taught by certified teachers in accordance with the Apex Learning digital curriculum, which the center implemented in 2010.

According to Dennis McMahan, Deputy Superintendent of the Depke Center, the transition to Apex’s digital curriculum has resulted in several benefits. For one, the online platform allows for individualization of the residents’ education, McMahan said.

“Let’s say there’s a 14 year old in seventh grade and a 17 year old who’s a senior in high school––both living here,” McMahan said. “If they’re in the same classroom with only one curriculum, it would be too easy for one student or too hard for the other. With Apex, we’re able to teach them at the correct grade level.”

Apex Learning offers a wide range of courses in the subjects of Math, Science, English, Social Studies and World Languages. Its course catalog includes 13 Advanced Placement (AP) courses and several other electives and career-related options. In some cases, residents can earn credits to be transferred to their home schools when they leave, McMahan said.

According to McMahan, residents spend the majority of the school day working on a computer while the program’s three certified teachers and three teacher assistants circulate throughout the classroom and assist as needed. Residents of the center are assigned to one of the nine computer stations that are located in each classroom for the duration of their stay.

Given that it allows for residents’ individual needs to be addressed, the Apex Learning digital curriculum has led to a decrease in behavioral issues during the school day. In 2010, the first year that Apex Learning was used at the center, the number of disciplinary incidents dropped by 83 percent.  

Though more residents are attending the school program per day, the number of disciplinary incidents has continued to go down. In 2014-2015, there was an increase in the resident population of 28 percent but only an 18 percent increase in the number of disciplinary incidentsstill reflecting a 60 percent decrease in disciplinary incidents since the time prior to the implementation of Apex Learning.

Aside from the time spent utilizing Apex’s digital curriculum, the residents are allotted one hour for lunch and PE is built in throughout the day. The center has also partnered with the Vernon Area Public Library in organizing a bi-weekly book club.

“The kids enjoy it,” McMahan said. “They’ll read a certain amount of a book series throughout the week and then volunteers from the library staff come in and have a book discussion with the kids regarding what they read.”

In addition to benefitting from the services of the library, the center has also maintained a strong relationship with the nearby school districts, namely Districts 125 and 103.

“We’ve had a relationship with [the Depke center] for almost 20 years,” Jim Conrey, Stevenson’s public information coordinator, said.

According to Conrey, the relationship revolves around a 1997 agreement with the Lake County Regional Office of Education in which Stevenson provides funding that originates from the state government and flows through the local school districts into the Depke Center. The agreement, which functions in two-year intervals with three subsequent single-year renewal periods, is due to be renewed for the 2017-2018 school year, Conrey said.

“This school year, the state is funnelling $400,050 through us to them,” Conrey said. “That money is being spent on whatever educational support services the center may need. No local tax money goes into the funding and no Stevenson teachers or personnel are sent there. We are simply a conduit to provide funding that comes from the state.”

Part of Stevenson’s decision not to send its own faculty to the center may stem from the fact that Stevenson students rarely end up there, Conrey said. According to Rick Coakley, Stevenson’s school resource officer, of the 41 criminal case reports that were completed in 2015 by the Lincolnshire Police Department, there were only seven incidents which resulted in a student being referred to the juvenile justice system.

At 8:30 am on any given school day, the students at Stevenson and residents of the Depke Center may be sitting 2.5 miles apart, but they can be sure that their respective institutions are doing their very best to provide them with a good education.

“Our goal here is not just to house them,” McMahan said. “Our goal is to try to mentor them and teach them so that hopefully, when they leave, we have given them tools to be successful and they won’t come back here or continue to get in trouble.”