Prison Students Illustrate the Shortcomings of Public Schools

Lawmakers must enhance education for all, even those behind bars.


Andrew J. Rotherham is Co-Founder and Publisher of Education Sector and writes the blog

NEW YORK--The notorious Rikers Island, home to 10 of New York City's jails, sits in the East River just across from La Guardia Airport. The island is an imposing array of razor wire, security check points, and fortified buildings spread across more than 400 acres. Life here is punctuated by the sounds of incarceration--metal on metal clanging as gates and metal doors bolt shut, shouts, and alarms. Although violence has declined in the past decade the jails remain dangerous places and tension is palpable.

Rikers Island is also a public school.

Among the 14,000 inmate residents of Rikers are approximately a thousand school-age youngsters. They sit in desks like other students in classrooms that look like classrooms elsewhere. Yet correctional officers stand at each door and the necessities of running jails clash daily with the imperatives of running a school.

Today more than 100,000 juveniles are incarcerated around the country. Schools for prisoners are obviously the extreme of the alternative school spectrum. In New York City incarcerated youth make up just a fraction of the 70,000 students in alternative setting. Nonetheless, these schools illustrate the many ways that traditional public schools cannot possibly meet the diverse needs of all American students.

Too often, however, alternative schools are educational backwaters. Students in these settings have more intense needs but frequently want for the cornerstones of quality education: High expectations, great teachers and curriculum, and adequate resources. Their needs are not debated alongside No Child Left Behind, vouchers, or other hot-button education issues. To the extent these students are discussed the conversation often turns on diminished expectations or futility.

Cami Anderson fights this every day. Anderson runs District 79, the array of alternative schools run by the New York City Department of Education, including Rikers Island. She's as relentless a proponent of accountability and quality for underserved students as any educator in the country. Stories of battles she's waged on their behalf are legendary in education school reform circles.

Anderson sees a dual problem in alternative education. "There is a lot of low-hanging fruit, obvious stuff we don't do," she says, "but then there are really difficult problems, too," for instance "ensuring that our students, most of whom have met with major setbacks, succeed academically."

The best teachers at Rikers are quick to say that only highly effective educators can achieve results in the challenging environment there. That's true for alternative education overall. Unfortunately, alternative schools regularly become a dumping ground for people of all ages who are bad fits for traditional schools. Anderson and her deputy Tim Lisante have aggressively worked to remove low-performing teachers and administrators while empowering talented educators beaten down by years of dysfunction.

That work highlights the amount of time Anderson spends on basic issues. When she became superintendent for District 79 in 2006, officials could not even tell her how many students were in the city's alternative program, how long they stayed there, how many earned degrees or had other outcomes, or how long students stayed incarcerated on Rikers. It was a system where too many youngsters became hopelessly lost.

Not all at-risk youth are in secure facilities. Although more than a third of its residents are referred by the courts, the Youth for Tomorrow school could not look or feel less like Rikers. The private residential campus nestled amongst Northern Virginia sprawl is comprised of multi-story suburban homes and a few common buildings and is home to 125 boys and girls.

The average annual cost per resident is more than four times what nearby public schools spend and funding comes from a blend of public and private sources. Joe Gibbs, the former Washington Redskins coach, founded the program in 1986 and remains instrumental in efforts to meet the school's constant fundraising needs. Most alternative programs do not have public champions, especially not three-time Super Bowl winning coaches. Still, despite this, Youth for Tomorrow struggles to meet its budget, especially in tough economic times. These students are not the adorable ones that sell adopt-a-school initiatives.