Steinberg: High school similar inside and out

Angie Ballesteros teaches Spanish 1 at York Alternative High School within the Cook County Jail, Monday, Jan. 11, 2016. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

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“Welcome to Mr. Maloney’s Science Class” reads a slide projected on the wall of Room 1306. Posters describe the circulatory system, the skeleton.

“Today we’re going to cool out a little bit and not worry about all our assignments,” says John Maloney, projecting a laid-back teacher vibe, welcoming his new class at Consuella B. York Alternative High School. He outlines the grading system he’ll use, stresses the importance of tidy folders, and says something that indicates we are not in just any of the 176 public high schools in Chicago.

“I want to get your court dates,” he says to his class of 10 students, who are all wearing identical school uniforms: beige scrubs with “DOC” — Department of Corrections — stenciled on them.

York High School is the CPS high school within the Cook County Jail at 2700 S. California. The school has roughly 235 students — enrollment fluctuates day by day as students are incarcerated and released — ranging in age from 17 to 22. Only two 17-year-olds are left in the jail after most were transferred to juvenile custody last year. It has 56 teachers and administrative staff.

Some aspects of York are like any high school: it has a mascot, a tiger. Come summer, there is a graduation with caps and gowns and proud parents.

“It’s a big to-do,” says Marlena Jentz, director of alternative programs and education at the Cook County Department of Corrections. “Lots of crying and Kleenex.”

Some aspects are very different. The school is scattered among various divisions of the jail — male, female, drug treatment, protective custody, maximum security. Students in different wings don’t encounter one another in class.

“It’s almost like having five or six different high schools that you have to run and manage” says Jentz.

OPINION

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Students switch classrooms at Consuella B. York Alternative High School within the Cook County Jail. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The students don’t go to school because the law requires it but for a variety of other reasons.

“Some are actually in school prior to incarceration, some do it because it passes the time,” says Sharnette Sims, York’s principal. “It gives them something to do while they’re here. Some do it to impress the judge.”

Whatever school brings to the students, education behind bars is good for society: a recent RAND study found that inmates who participate in any kind of educational program are 43 percent less likely to return to jail.

The first stop on our tour is the art room; art is mandatory at York. The art teacher is April Clark, 24. She has worked at the jail for four years since graduating from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She finds her students in jail “just regular people.”

“I don’t notice a difference at all,” says Clark, comparing the York students to students at John F. Kennedy High School, where she was a student teacher. ”A regular place with regular people who’ve made mistakes. They have the same issues, they go through similar things. The difference is they have a different environment. At JFK, they can go home, they can roam the hallways. In this case, a totally different atmosphere.”

In some ways, she said, it’s a better atmosphere in jail, where classes are an hour and 40 minutes long.

“It’s more intimate and I have more time to teach, to expand their minds,” she says. “They get a whole 100 minutes to work. As with other classes, there is much personal development, discussions of goals and attitudes. Clark’s students do “body biographies,” addressing “where their heart is, what their hands do.”

“They need to know they’re capable of doing much more than people make them out to be,” Clark says. “Art is all about self-learning”

As difficult as it is to teach high school, period, in jail there is the added element of uncertainty. And even that can be spun into a positive.

“I don’t know I’m ever going to see them again,” she says. “So we have to make the time matter. … Every single minute I have with them, we make sure the time we have is not in vain.”

This being a Chicago Public School, however, it is not without controversy. In 2011, it was reported that as few as 20 students a year actually graduate from York, each costing some $300,000 in state money. A new block system, where semesters are 38 days long, was instituted, and graduation rates soared 60 percent. After I toured the jail, I began to hear from teachers who recently quit York, claiming the principal pressured them to give inmates credit for classes they never finished.

“I left Jan. 8 after 18 years because the harassment is incredible,” says Jackie Burger. “There have been three of us in the last two months who have done that.”

“They want a graduation rate so it looks better for the administration,” says former teacher Scott Anderson. “I worked there for 10 years, I loved the school, loved the students, was nominated for the teachers award twice. Then last year some of the things that went on got so bad, I just quit. The culture was really toxic, a lot of unethical things with the credits. I did not feel I was teaching students the way they should be taught. The teachers were literally told they would be fired if they didn’t give students a credit.”

“You can’t have kids who can sit still that long for 100 minutes in a classroom,” Burger says. “How do you issue credits in 38 days? Then teachers are forced to issue credits in 38 days. I had a student six days [and they are credited]. When my names on that, I’m responsible.”

Jail officials referred the issue to CPS which, characteristically, did not respond. It took me three months of pushing to get inside the school — at the time I wondered why, but the “toxic atmosphere” might be the explanation. Though the students themselves don’t reflect that in the brief time I observed their classes and spoke with them.

“It’s alright, like a real school, a safe environment,” says P.W., 19, who has been in jail for two years. (I agreed to not use their names.) He is sketching in an American literature class and says he wanted to be an architect. “Just because you’re in jail, doesn’t mean you can’t make the best of it.”

Why go to school in jail?

“Help me understand, open my eyes,” says Little Drew, also 19, who hopes to be an electrician. “I’m seeing education is important.”

A student studies at Consuella B. York Alternative High School within the Cook County Jail. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

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