Captive audience hits the books, plays academic catch-up

P.S. 884

February 27, 1992|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,Staff Writer

In the two trailers that make up Public School 884, Dante Smith works on the skills he hopes will someday lead him to college.

But first he must get out of P.S. 884. And to get out of P.S. 884, he has to be released from the Baltimore City Detention Center.

Dante Smith, 17, is one of the 96 youths who attend classes at P.S. 884, the jail's school for juvenile offenders who have been charged as adults with serious crimes.

The students' ages range from 14 to 17 and they attend reading, mathematics, English and computer classes. State law requires juveniles age 16 and younger to attend school.

But to most students at P.S. 884, sitting in class is better than the alternative: spending the entire day either in or near cramped cells at the detention center.

"It's a captive audience we have here. We don't have to worry about students missing class," said Ernestine Holley, the school's principal for 10 years.

Classes at P.S. 884 are orderly and the students attentive. Students move quickly and quietly to classrooms between classes, and fights or disturbances are infrequent.

A correctional officer stationed outside the classrooms perhaps is the only reminder that the school actually is within a prison. But administrators said the officer's presence has little to do with the students' behavior.

"We have little to no discipline problems here," said Ms. Holley. "It is always organized."

But when trouble does occur, it is corrected quickly. A youth who once bumped Ms. Holley was taken away in handcuffs and almost put into segregation. But the boy profusely apologized soon after the incident and was accepted back in class.

"Most teachers here have experience with teaching special education students," said LaMont W. Flanagan, commissioner of the division of pretail detention and services. "Juveniles do acts of violence on impulse to get a rep."

The detention center school is part of the city public school system and is staffed by seven teachers and seven assistant instructors from the city school system.

Although the school currently has 96 students, enrollment varies daily, as juvenile offenders enter and are released from the facility, Ms. Holley said. Students also miss class for court appearances.

No girls currently are in the school, but some have attended classes.

"There isn't a maximum number of students that we can hold," said Ms. Holley. The school once had 150 juvenile offenders. "If we had to, we'd have morning and evening classes."

The educational skills of the students vary from non-readers to more advanced readers. But Ms. Holley said most of the students are two to three grade levels below the grade levels for students their age.

"These kids are at a functional level below where it should be," Ms. Holley said. "Everyone in here had been involved in some type of educational program before they came here, although their attendance may not have been kept up.

"I'm here to educate them even though some have committed terrible crimes."

Antwan Allmond, 17, who is awaiting trial for attempted murder, said he only finished the eighth grade because he never cared for school.

"But this is not just a school where you come and learn," he said. "The teachers are like friends. It's like a family. They always welcome you and your problems. I didn't know nothing about math when I came here. Now I'm ready for geometry."

When juvenile offenders enter the detention center, their records are obtained from the last school they attended and they are evaluated to see which of the four levels of instruction offered at the school they will take.

Marion Williams Turner, who has taught in the detention center for seven years, said many of the students need to understand they can learn.

"Some just don't believe they can achieve in school," she said. "I've met the father, son and uncle in some cases. Some regret that they live this life and don't know how to change it."

Detention center administrators believe that being under controlled conditions helps the students learn better.

Mr. Flanagan said the facility's strict discipline helps to extract previously unused educational skills from the youths.

"This is the end of the line here," he said. "They're in a captive environment where their attention span is prolonged."

Dante Smith, who has been at the detention center for three months while awaiting trial on drug charges, said he attended school irregularly before he was arrested.

"On the streets, I was involved in selling drugs. That's all I wanted to do," the Smith youth said. "I'd wake up with one thing on my mind: selling drugs."

But he said he works hard at school work, partly because he sees the older inmates at the detention center and also because of his 8-month-old daughter.

"I see other, older people and it makes me think, 'Do I want to be like that when I get older?' I'm only 17 and I've got a daughter to think about," young Smith said. "Just getting a GED [equivalency diploma] will make a big difference in my life.

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