Officials push overhaul at school in detention center

Officials at Chicago Public Schools say they are implementing major changes to a school for court-detained students.

Nancy B. Jefferson Alternative School operates within the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. Detainees at the center, 10 to 17 years old, are required to attend the school while they wait for judgment from county courts.

District officials run Nancy B., as it is commonly called. But in response to concerns that children there were inadequately supervised, a federal judge revoked the county's control of the detention center and turned it over to a transitional administrator.

Now, faced with bleak statistics on outcomes for students who leave the school, district officials say they are working on a pilot program that would help students transition to life outside the detention center.

"Perhaps the biggest piece is that, we begin upon entry to plan for their exit," says Jennifer Vidis, a special assistant in the office of Ron Huberman, the district's chief executive officer.

Vidis spoke at a meeting this week of the City Council's Education and Child Development Committee. She painted a sobering picture of the facility, inhabited day and night by youngsters who failed at school before they entered, and who quickly abandon it afterward.

The scene at the detention center is fraught. More than a year ago, a fight there ended with more than a dozen staff members hospitalized and dozens of teenagers treated for injuries. The scuffle led the federal court's transitional administrator, Earl Dunlap, to shut down the school.

To this day, teachers must enter the detention center's units, rather than Nancy B.'s classrooms, to deliver lessons to more than half of its students. Vidis says officials hope to have all students back in classrooms by the end of the year.

Perhaps a bigger problem is what happens when Nancy B.'s students leave the school.

According to the district's figures, more than half of the students come back within the school year. Those who do not — well, they do not go to school, either.

Judges who rule on students from the detention center often mandate that they return to school as a condition of their release.

During the 2007-08 school year, 92 percent of them subsequently enrolled, but just a quarter of those students actually stayed past two weeks. After a year, none were still in school, according to the district.

"They're not coming back at all? Those are astonishing numbers," Alderman Bob Fioretti (D-2) says. "We gotta do a lot better for these kids."

With that goal, Vidis says administrators are working on a plan to split Nancy B. into seven transitional centers, places where students can go instead of traditional public schools.

Alderman Latasha Thomas (D-17), chairwoman of the Committee on Education and Child Development, says it's a doomed effort to put some Nancy B. students back into community schools, especially during school year.

"If you have a student being sent back from the courts two weeks before the ISATs (Illinois Standards Achievement Tests), they're not going to stay there longer than a day or two," Thomas says. "It's not even fair to the teacher."

Vidis says the new model acknowledges that reality. Part of the plan involves moving the students to transitional classrooms after their release, then having them complete courses online rather than at community schools.

It also takes into account students' existing educational records so that, for example, a late teenager with few or no high-school credits is encouraged to study for a general equivalency diploma rather than start back in school.

"The idea is to develop a path for success for the individual student, not a cookie-cutter approach," Vidis says.

Staff Writer Adrian G. Uribarri can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 12, or adrian at chitowndailynews dot org.