Providing opportunity in juvenile centers

College of DuPage students in Professor Stacie Haen-Darden’s juvenile delinquency class are helping incarcerated youths with career assessments and research for COD courses the youths are taking. (Photo: COD)

Community colleges and other higher education institutions are known to partner with prisons to educate adult inmates, but they also work with juvenile justice centers to help incarcerated youths in a similar way.

The College of DuPage in Illinois, for example, recently launched college-credit courses at the Illinois Youth Center (IYC) in Warrenville. The college and center had a previous longstanding relationship with volunteers coming to the center, but officials last year decided to test the idea of offering for-credit programs.

The courses were piloted last year with a hybrid schedule of IYC Warrenville youths attending classes at the center’s facility and on COD’s Glen Ellyn campus. Given the success of the pilot, this year students are taking all available courses — college success skills, career development, short stories and speech — on the COD campus.

Six youths at IYC Warrenville have enrolled this fall at COD in five credit hours of courses, with additional offerings available in the spring.

Access to opportunity

Access to education can change lives, said Heidi Mueller, director of the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).

“Youth in the juvenile justice system need to believe that they have a future, and the adults around them need to nurture that belief and see their potential as well. The faculty at COD dedicate their time to not only teaching these kids, but to showing them they are worthy humans with exponential potential,” she said.

Before the COD pilot program, the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) did not have a postsecondary collegiate opportunity for youths at IYC Warrenville, making it the only youth center in the state to not have an affiliation with a local college. Mueller said that through the department’s partnership with COD, DJJ is able to fulfill its vision of creating a prison-to-college pipeline for all youth centers under its jurisdiction.

“At DJJ, we found ourselves with this sort of positive problem of increasing the number of youth graduating from high school while in our care — seeing that light and motivation turn on in them as they start to realize their potential — but not having a lot of postsecondary options for them,” Mueller said. The partnership with COD provides them an opportunity to continue with their education, she said.

Second chances

COD criminal justice professors Theo Darden and Stacie Haen-Darden helped to forge the partnership between COD and IYC Warrenville that began more than a decade ago when former IYC Warrenville Superintendent Judy Davis sat on the college’s Criminal Justice Advisory Board. After years of COD criminal justice students volunteering at the youth center to gain professional experience, the idea of the college credit partnership program developed. Haen-Darden applied for and received a grant from the college’s foundation to launch the pilot.

Her passion for the initiative stems from her belief that many kids who commit crimes come from broken backgrounds, but they can have a promising future if offered the right support.

“Many times, kids commit crimes because of physical, sexual or emotional abuse they have encountered in their lives,” Haen-Darden said. “They haven’t come from a background rich with opportunities or resources to succeed. When incarcerated, they often don’t have the same access as everyone else to education — and the sad part is many of them never did.”

She adds: “When we look at rehabilitation, you can’t question that the more education you have, be it youths or adults, the less likely you are to re-offend.”

A life-changing experience

The partnership between COD and IYC Warrenville is one of many efforts implemented by DJJ to effectively reverse the school-to-prison pipeline. DJJ youths who participate in postsecondary education options have a statistically lower chance of re-offending and re-entering the system, Mueller said.

“What’s so important about this particular program at COD is that it provides the youths not only with the educational instruction but with this normative experience of actually being able to go on campus and experience what college life is like,” she said. “Once our youths start to realize they are smart and that this path can be real for them, they become so incredibly focused and motivated.”

One student who participated in the pilot called her experience at COD life-changing.

“These classes have taught me to love myself more and to understand the kind of person I am,” she said. “When something bad happens to you, or if you have been through a traumatic experience, this doesn’t mean that you get left behind. Just because we are or were in the system does not have to mean that we’re stuck in it. We have to make the decision to change paths and realize we’re important, and we just need a guiding hand to lead the way.”

Criminal justice students

COD student Julia Rigney saw firsthand how important this opportunity was to the youths. Through her internship in COD’s criminal justice program, Rigney ran weekly study halls where she helped students with their homework and guided them through weekly journaling exercises. What she thought would simply be a resume builder turned out to be a life-formative experience, she said.

“One of the most rewarding experiences that I had was watching the students excel and go from not believing they could go to college to wanting to pursue a college career,” she said. “Many of the students just need someone to believe in them and their ability to succeed.”

The potential for this program is vast, said IYC Warrenville Superintendent Tajudeen Ibrahim.

“We had a youth leave our care while school was in session, and they still participated in the college program from home — despite a long commute,” he said. “They wanted more knowledge and skills and, more importantly, they wanted to finish. We have kids who get a taste of college and continue in their pursuit of it after being released. That’s how powerful education is.”

To prepare for the fall semester, Ibrahim and his staff took participating students to the COD admissions office to tour the college campus before classes started.

“We wanted to excite and motivate them,” he said. “We also wanted them to see the entire picture to help calm their fears. They were so excited to explore the connections and participate in on-campus activities.”

Looking ahead

Haen-Darden and her colleagues plan to seek more funding to expand the program.

“Starting small and slow was crucial because when you are really thinking about building a foundation, that’s what you need to do,” she said. “We will build on this momentum so we have a rock-solid foundation to reach even more kids in need.”

While the program is still small and in its starting stages, Haen-Darden said it’s already making a positive impact on its students. After leaving the care of IYC Warrenville, two students who participated in the pilot are enrolled in traditional college this fall.

“I plan on running with the opportunity,” one student said. “I have dreams and goals geared towards public policy and law. I want to help people less fortunate and give back to my disenfranchised community. I finally see the potential in myself that had been missing for so long.”

About the Author

Angela Mennecke
is a media relations specialist at College of DuPage in Illinois.