Students dancing with teacher

Butler County Juvenile Justice Center teachers celebrate 25 graduating seniors, student success

Butler County Educational Service Center (BCESC) succeeded longtime facilitator Hamilton City School District as the provider of education programs at the JDC/JRC in 2016, and when Sarah Burk was named the director of alternative programs, she made the conscious decision to build a new program from scratch with one underlying theme: focus on the kid, not the crime.

Burk leveraged her experience as Madison Local School District’s special education director to reconsider – and reinvent – the education that students in Butler County’s JDC/JRC receive. After handpicking a small team of educators, the group set out to design a new curriculum around key content areas and standards based on credit recovery, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), and blended, differentiated learning. In the five years since, the program’s staff has grown to 14.

"The education process is an important component of the work that is performed in our facilities,” said Jason Gundrum, superintendent of corrections at the Butler County Juvenile Justice Center (BCJJC). “Youth in our care have often lacked the necessary motivation, opportunity and support to fully engage in the educational process. It is with that recognition in mind that BCESC and facility staff work in conjunction to provide these crucial educational opportunities for youth placed in the detention or rehabilitation setting. They work tirelessly to motivate our youth to engage in the education process, create beneficial education opportunities, and address barriers to academic achievement.”

Despite some obvious differences in the learning environment, lessons are designed to emulate a traditional classroom setting where students receive much of the same education as their district peers from content-certificated teachers in areas such as math, language arts, science, social studies and physical education/wellness five days a week.

Much like their district peers, BCJJC students participate in a wide range of group activities and receive individualized instruction. They complete their assignments the same way too, using Chromebooks with special software that allows them to learn online in a safe, secure portal. Each semester, parents are also invited to a parent-teacher conference to discuss their child’s educational programming and progress. Intervention specialists are on staff to provide specialized instruction and follow students’ individualized education programs (IEPs), and students assessed at higher-achieving levels may choose to participate in more challenging independent study related to their interests if they have the necessary credits.

But while BCJJC teachers strive to provide many of the same traditional learning opportunities for their students, they have also worked to create a number of innovative transition and vocational programs that are unique to their year-round school setting.

Many students choose a college or career pathway while at BCJJC, where they have access to simulators, e-learning materials and certification opportunities to prepare them for future careers in construction, retail, customer service, sales or culinary arts. They learn life skills like how to cook, drive a car, balance a budget and live independently. Students participate in book studies and reenactments, and a panel of business and community volunteers teach them the importance of soft skills through mock interviews and career fairs.

Despite many of these vocational opportunities only being formally introduced 18 months ago, 27 students have already benefited from the additional support designed to help them reintegrate into their home communities throughout Ohio.

“The goal of our program is to develop students into self-sufficient, competent, reliable and resilient individuals who become marketable employees,” said Transition and Vocational Specialist Kristin Kwiat. “If we can help them create a vision for their future, they can find new ways to leverage their strengths, abilities and interests to positively contribute to their communities.”

The results that Burk and her colleagues have seen further prove the success of the program. Recently, one student took the initiative to use his artistic talents to tell the story of his life, learning, hardships and successes in hopes that others might learn from them. His hand-painted mural, life summary and a playable guitar recording of his will soon be on display for all to see and hear at the Fringe Coffee House in Hamilton, one of BCJJC’s many community partners that help connect students with their home communities and the outside world. The work will be labeled “Anonymous Student” until his 18th birthday when he can decide whether to make his name known to the public.

“I am very proud of the teachers, therapists and the entire BCJJC staff, past and present, for their efforts to support our students in so many different ways,” said Scott Gates, assistant director of alternative education. “Rest assured that we will continue to meet the academic, social and emotional needs of all of our students with that same passion and energy.”

Many students who have struggled with academics in a traditional setting find success with BCJJC’s alternative education program. Some far exceed their own expectations by making the honor roll, an achievement that many admit they never dreamed of.

Valuing education has become a mindset for students at BCJJC as they cheer each other on to earn credits toward graduation, work on projects outside the classroom, and set their own goals for the future. Students who plan next steps and apply themselves to continuous learning have discovered their ability to shuffle their cards to reveal a new hand of possibilities for themselves, not just in academic achievement but also in life trajectory. Research shows that individuals who participate in additional educational experiences have higher rates of employment sustainability and decrease their chance of recidivism by as much as three times.

Once students leave the center, teachers are not permitted to reach out to them, but they do occasionally hear about a former student who has obtained their diploma, started a job or gotten their own apartment. In one example, a student decided to pursue culinary school after graduation due, in part, to his experience in a food handling class he participated in while at the BCJJC.

As a result of their successes, program leaders have been used as case studies at several different national conferences, including the Ohio Association of Supervisors and Coordinators for Exceptional Students (OASCES) and the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE). For the teachers, one of the greatest compliments they’ve ever received came from a visiting auditor from the Ohio Department of Youth Services, who described the program as “the best education department in any juvenile justice program in Ohio.”

“It’s very rewarding to see our youth become motivated, take hold of their educational future and find a spark to learn,” added Gundrum. “We are thankful for our relationship with BCESC and take great pride in the 25 students who have been able to obtain their high school diploma over the last five years. I look forward to the continued growth of our educational programming and opportunities provided to our youth to build a better foundation for a brighter future."