- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 1, 2002

JESSUP, Md. Oak Hill Academy, the troubled detention facility for violent juvenile offenders, put on its best face for officials and members of the media who toured the center yesterday as part of an open house.

Selected students answered questions. Teachers, administrators and a parent spoke about the progress the school is trying to make, but said there is a long way to go.

"We wanted to take some of the mysticism out," said Edna O'Connor, executive director of Oak Hill Academy. "We turn acorns into oak trees, and we understand that not one student is expendable. These are bright kids who deserve another chance."

One former student, who is working with the D.C. public schools to help others stay out of trouble, told the visitors not to give up on the youths there.

"Children are like bank accounts," said Donald Stevenson, who was at Oak Hill four years ago. "Whatever you put in, is what you are going to get out."

Oak Hill is an all-boys correctional facility that houses 122 D.C. juveniles who have been found guilty of serious crimes including rape and murder or are awaiting trial. D.C. Youth Services Administration oversees the facility, which is also administered in part by the D.C. public-schools system.

D.C. schools Superintendent Paul L. Vance noted the improvements yesterday, but said Oak Hill still had work to do.

"I am impressed with what I am seeing, but there is still more we need to do. We still have a big commitment here," he said.

Oak Hill has been plagued by problems with security and employee morale.

In January, The Washington Times reported that 22 of the 122 youths imprisoned there had escaped during the previous nine months, including one 17-year-old who Prince George's County police said held up several stores at gunpoint after breaking out.

Many employees have expressed frustration with Oak Hill management, which they say does not understand how dangerous the juveniles are or how serious their crimes were. Last June, two Oak Hill administrators took three youths to participate in a soap-box derby near the Capitol. All three escaped, but were recaptured.

But the open house yesterday was meant to promote the positive and leave the negative in the past.

Students at Oak Hill have the opportunity to take classes many high school students take and can also enroll in vocational classes.

"I like working with my hands, and one day I might build my own house. That way, I will know if it was done right," said a 17-year-old Oak Hill inmate who said he was there because of illegal possession charges. The student demonstrated what he had learned during his woodworking classes and presented a model house with insulation and flooring.

Youths learn computer skills and receive English as a Second Language instruction in the Modular School, which is a short walk from the main building.

While there are no computer classes, students who go to the computer center receive help from Ken Brown, the technology coordinator for Oak Hill. Among the projects he displayed was "Chef Foster Boogie," a short film about fruit produced by two students.

"It is quite sophisticated what we are able to do here, and I would say 75 percent of the students will use something in here at some point," Mr. Brown said.

But one teacher dismissed the open house as nothing more than a "publicity stunt."

"The school is not any better. The only thing that is better is the things we have here, including the Internet and technology and books," said a teacher who asked not to be identified. "This was all just a big publicity stunt. It was a dog and horse show."

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