Wednesday, October 20, 2004

GROVE CITY, Pa. — Many 13- to 18-year-old juvenile offenders sent by state courts to George Jr. Republic, a privately run 500-student detention center and school in this rural community an hour north of Pittsburgh, do not know the alphabet or the months of the year when they arrive, teachers say.

But somehow, these children — almost all from desperately poor families — had survived in public schools without reading and other skills up to fifth grade and beyond, and had been promoted from grade to grade anyway.

These youth are at George Jr. Republic because juvenile court judges did not want to send them to hardened prisons for drug-related crimes and other repeat offenses. Most of them attended inner-city schools that reflect the catastrophic circumstances in which they were born and raised: unwed mothers who worked at low-paying jobs, drugs, prostitution, rampant bullying and violence.

“This is one step away from prison for these kids,” said Richard L. Losasso, the facility’s chief executive officer, who started at George Jr. as a recreation specialist out of college in 1976.

“None of them want to be here, but most of them realize they have to be.”

The results speak for themselves. Youngsters assigned in the past several years to George Jr. have been mostly 4.8 years below grade level in reading and 4.3 years below grade level in math, said remedial reading teacher Michael Bagdes-Canning. “About one-third are four to 5.9 years below grade level in reading.”

Despite huge challenges with a juvenile-offender population, teenagers assigned to George Jr. Republic during the 2002-2003 school year “gained 2.1 years in reading and 1.4 years in mathematics on the Stanford Diagnostic Assessment Test in an average of six months of enrollment,” school Principal Tammi Martin said.

“For a 16-year-old who didn’t know the alphabet or months of the year, and couldn’t sequence them, but could do that in three months, that three months was valuable,” she said.

Mr. Losasso runs the well-manicured 550-acre campus, which has asphalt streets, 70 school and recreation buildings, and 50 single-story homes like those in any suburban neighborhood.

The difference is, each home has 10 juvenile offenders in double-occupancy rooms with trained house parents who have their own attached apartments “living fairly normal lives” with their own children, said Julie Sinclair, house mother in one of five drug-alcohol rehabilitation houses at the Grove City campus.

Each house has an assigned mental health counselor and security officer 24 hours a day.

There is a George Jr. Republic facility for female juvenile offenders near Ithaca, N.Y., but Mr. Losasso said the two campuses are not affiliated.

Students are tracked almost hourly with individual performance cards completed by house parents and teachers that address 64 issues, ranging from personal hygiene, civility, and timeliness to respect for others and the facility’s rules, completion of home and school assignments, and overall attitude.

Students earn or lose points in the performance system, which translates into job assignments earning cash income, sports and recreation opportunities, and other benefits beyond the education they receive from local Grove City School District teachers.

There are problems with occasional runaways who steal cars from nearby auto dealers to make their escape. Last year, two inmates overpowered and tied up a security guard in an effort to run away. The guard died.

“Last year was the worst year I’ve ever had,” Mr. Losasso said. “But the positives far outweigh the negatives.”

The program includes vocational training in which students learn how to be chefs, building trades, auto mechanics and body repair, welding, electronics, business computer and telephone systems.

“This is the first time they’ve been around a normal family, and they’re in awe of it,” Mrs. Sinclair said. “A large number come from families that were not functioning properly.”

Several juvenile wards asked to talk to a visiting reporter.

William, a white teenager from central Pennsylvania near Gettysburg assigned by a juvenile court judge on May 19 after repeated marijuana violations, said he is grateful for the schooling and personal skills he is being taught at George Jr.

“I’ve got a better opportunity to get that than jail. This is a last hope not to go to prison. Rehabilitation gives you what you need to help with problems better.”

He said he’s getting help to “stay clean” from drugs and alcohol through involvement in Alcoholics Anonymous and other therapy. He is training to be a welder and to maintain farm equipment.

Kevin, a black youth who had five brothers and sisters in a broken home near Pittsburgh, said he had been involved in drugs and alcohol and had not been “making good decisions. This is a good turning point for my life.”

A little more than a mile away at Grove City College, a student group called New Life has committed itself for many years as big brothers and sisters to the young men at George Jr. Republic. New Life members go to the reform school on Mondays and Thursdays for prayer and Bible sessions, and on Sundays for evening praise and worship services.

Eric Ekman, New Life’s president and a Grove City College senior from Woodbridge, Conn., said the group’s efforts are part of God’s message “to go out and spread the Gospel.”

“New Life is about making strong relationships with the guys at George Jr. so they will not only hear what we say in a Bible study, but see how we act it out in the way we live,” Mr. Ekman said.

After three years working with the youths at George Jr., Mr. Ekman said, “We’ve seen everything from people who make no change to people who turn their lives fully around.”

Many students are taken out of the George Jr. program just months after court assignment, according to school records, because local child welfare agencies refuse to continue paying the $117 daily per-student cost of medical, mental health and other services.

The state pays the Grove City Area School District for its $7,192 per-pupil education expenditure, far less than the school costs of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, where about half the youngsters are from.

George Jr. teacher Beverly Graham, who teaches English and U.S. history to ninth- through 12th-graders, said the students actually are eager to learn.

“It’s that they haven’t had an education. They’ve been thrown out of school. They’re starved to learn,” she said. “The kids say, ‘Why don’t the teachers in Philly teach us like you do?’”

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