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Many years ago, back in the 90s, I worked in a center for adolescent males who were adjudicated as repeat offenders. Our center was operated by a non-profit agency, rather than a state or local agency, and we had a contract with the city and county and also received grant funds. Also, as the Director of Education, where possible, I classified students as qualifying for special education and we received a little support from the state for those students, and then we also began receiving money through a part of Title I that goes specifically for Delinquent and Neglected Youth.

The men who developed our program had a long history in adolescent mental health, having developed residential psychiatric treatment programs in the early 1980s. Having started my career in one of these centers and realizing that I didn't have much chance for moving upward in that program, I had always said, if I ever got the chance to be at the opening of a program, I would. And then I did. When they opened this program, they recruited me as a classroom teacher. Eventually I became Director of Education, still teaching but also serving as "principal" of our school, supervising the other teachers, overseeing all the special education & Title I services, and seeing how we could expand. But, working in one of these program is year-round, no summer break. At one point when I was working psych, they realized in order to stop the revolving door of teachers they had, they needed to give us a better vacation plan, so they gave us a month off in the summer, which really helped, but this center didn't. And so I burned out. Crispy. But I loved it. And if I were to go back to teaching kids today, there's no other group of kids I'd rather teach than kids in residential facilities.

So, what did a day look like for our kids? A lot of times I would battle with schools when trying to reintegrate my guys because schools didn't believe the grades my kids had, "It's not like they really did anything for those grades." Let me say right here, right now ... my guys worked harder for me, in my classroom, than most of them probably ever had for any other teacher ever. I'm going to try and put together their schedule from my memory, but keep in mind, this is a 20 year old memory.


Most of the people who worked in our facility had to hold at least a bachelor's degree in psychology, sociology, education, or a related field, but a few were "grandfathered" in ... they had worked in the field for so long and had a lot of experience in centers, so were hired without the bachelors. Many of us, especially supervisors, had master's degrees in our area. All the teachers had to hold a special education certification. We had a LCSW who supervised all our floor "techs" and had four people who were licensed to do individual therapy. One person did all the family therapy (and I did not envy him that job). I think he tried to get families in at least once every two weeks. We did not have a nurse on staff, but we shared property with a state mental health hospital and contracted with their nursing staff, so in an emergency, could call someone over; otherwise, we had a nurse who came in and did checks twice a week. Same for psychiatry.

Our unit held at maximum 38 guys, in two "teams" but usually the teams were more like at 16-18 guys. The teams were always kept separate; this was really to help minimize the likelihood of a riot. In four years I was there, that only happened once. Their day started early, somewhere around 6 or 6:30 (I'm not sure because it was way before I got there!). They had to start with a little P.T. (exercise) and then showers. They had small rooms, two to a room, with small private bathrooms, so this wasn't like a large barrack-style setting like you see sometimes. After showers, they had breakfast, then everyone went back to their rooms to clean and have room inspections before school. We did have a rank system, where the kids earned ranks based on behavior, so the kids at the higher rank would do inspections under the supervision of the floor techs.

Teachers would come in to start class at 8:30. It was up to each team teacher as to how they wanted to structure their day, but they were responsible for covering all content to all students. I did academic achievement testing on each student ideally within three days of admission, so if there were any learning disabilities, we'd know quickly and could adapt. If guys came in and were 17 and still in 8th grade (which happened more often than I care to remember), we immediately began GED preparation and our goal in those cases were usually that they wouldn't walk out until they had passed.

We taught until about noon (we took a brief break mid-morning for about 15 minutes, but otherwise, all academics). While I was teaching, the therapists might come and take individuals here and there for an individual therapy session; after working in psych and this setting, that in and out was just something I got used to as a teacher and could easily catch a student up on anything they missed. I had determined "big topics" that spanned age and grade levels; pretty much all my students had deficits in math computations when it came to fractions, so I could do big group lessons on that, we could read novels like "Gulliver's Travels" (I'd have grade level students reading the regular text, then I had "Steck-Vaughn" readers, which are written at like a 4th grade level for struggling readers, then I had comic versions for my non-readers) and I'd design different activities for it based on grade levels, or I'd do a unit on Ecology, and tailor the vocabulary and learning objectives to the different age levels and learning levels. It allowed me to still teach to a large group and have them work together - which they needed practice doing, because in general, these were kids who did not work well with others. At the same time, we'd have plenty of time to work independently, and so individual seat work.


When we'd break for lunch, they only got about 30 minutes for the meal, then there was "group." This was a daily behavior group, run by the techs. If anyone had a problem with someone else, they were supposed to "drop a slip" on them, meaning you write down what the problem was on a slip of paper and put it in a box provided for that. Then in group, the counselors would call on you and ask if you still had this problem with this person and wanted to talk about it. Sometimes, they'd realize, yeah it hadn't been that big of a deal and with a little time, they'd calmed down and were over it. Other times, yeah, they still wanted to tell the person what had made them angry. Group was always set for an hour, but there were times that I'd come back for afternoon class, and group was still going on. And if it was still running, group was more important than my class. Most times, techs would try really hard to stick to the schedule, so if it was running over, I knew there were issues that had to be addressed. Otherwise, class would start back up from about 1:30 until 3:30.

In the afternoons, the kids got a little bit of free time, but how they got to spend it was based on what level they had earned. We did have a tv, but you had to earn the privilege of tv time, and not everyone got to vote on what was going to be watched. We had a video game console; again, that was an earned privilege. We had a gym, but because you had to leave the locked doors to get to it, any bad behavior got gym privileges revoked. There was also scheduled homework time, and trust me, if I didn't assign homework, I'd hear about it from the evening staff. There was time for chores, because the guys were responsible for pretty much all the upkeep around the place, including doing their own laundry, of course dinner, and then there was an evening group. Make sure the bedrooms were tidy again, and bedtime. On weeknights, I'm pretty sure lights out was by like 9:30, guys at higher rank I believe could stay up til 10:00. Weekends I believe was a whole half hour later, and sometimes they wouldn't have homework - the staff would sometimes do a movie night. But again, that was an earned privilege. If the kids didn't have rank or didn't earn it, they'd have quiet time in their rooms, where they could read, draw, or write.


Of course, there were behavior problems. Things did not always run smoothly. I was very rarely left alone in my classroom; there was almost always a male staff member (or two) present at my classroom to step in if needed, although I liked to primarily handle behavioral problems to the maximum extent possible so the students could see that I couldn't be manipulated or intimidated. Because, other than the beginning start-up group of guys we got, guys would come and go at their own pace, they learned a lot of what was acceptable and not acceptable from each other. Generally, behavior problems happened outside my classroom (in the hallway or in rooms), because since I tended to be one of the first teachers they had ever had that treated them with some respect, they tended to not want to disappoint me - once they got to know me. A lot of them tried to test me when they first got in there, though, which often caused them to have slips dropped on them by their peers, and then I'd be called into group to witness as one boy would say, "I don't like what you did to Mrs. MountainMomma this morning in class!" and the new boy would suddenly learn how peer pressure worked in this setting - completely different than on the street.

But when things escalated, and they did, we did have a seclusion room, and we did have restraints. Since most everyone there came from a psych background, we all had been trained in the use of those in hospital settings, so use was rare and well-documented. If we had behavioral issues that we thought rose to losing privileges, we had to "write them up" and call the student in for a meeting. There was actually a scripted procedure for conducting the meeting, but if I had an issue with a student in class, I'd write it up, then I had to let the ranking student on the team know, they went and called in the offending student, served as a witness along with a floor tech, and I'd let the student know exactly what they did wrong, along with alternative, more productive ways they could have handled the situation. If you're looking for a theoretical basis for how we did it - at least how I handled those conversations - the best description would probably be Glasser's Reality therapy. A lot of times I was asking kids, "What were you trying to accomplish with that behavior?" and then following up with (and keep in mind, this was pre-Dr. Phil), "How did that work out for you? What else might have worked better? How do you think you could do this in the future?"


There were good days and bad days. I didn't have desks in my classroom; the kids sat at long tables that doubled as the lunchroom tables, and I sat right at the tables with them. I remember catching one of my students staring at my stomach, wide-eyed, when I was about 8 month pregnant with my daughter, and I realized she was kicking and he could see my stomach rippling. It probably looked like she was about to burst forth Alien-style, right there in the classroom. When we'd have good days in class, sometimes I'd toss aside my lesson plans and we'd have Tangram tournaments or rounds of 24 (and if you're a teacher and have never seen the 24 game, you absolutely MUST - it will get the most reluctant math student involved). On holidays, the employees all did potlucks for the kids. We all brought in homemade dishes so these kids wouldn't have to eat institutional food on Christmas or Thanksgiving.

So .... was it cushy? No. There's a good 6 hours or more of rigorous schoolwork, there's daily groupwork, there's individual therapy, and there's family therapy. Things that kids take for granted, like tv, music, and free time are things that are earned. They get up early and go to bed early. There's very little privacy. But was it overly harsh or punitive? I'd also say no. Our goal was always to make sure that kids didn't come back. We wanted them to succeed. I mentioned kids studying for the GED. Every kid who did earn his GED while he was there - we held a "graduation" ceremony for him when we got that notice of passing. We made a big deal out of it. We had a plaque hanging in the back hall with the name of every guy who had passed and every time I started a guy in GED prep, I'd show it to them and say, "One day, your name will be on there. You'll walk out of here a high school graduate." And our program director decided to give them each a $100 savings bond - that was out of his own pocket.


There's days I miss it. There's days I realize I'm probably too damned old to still be doing that job. Most days I wish more people were doing that job and doing it well. I learned a lot about those kids, mainly that their stories were not nearly as clear-cut as most people would have thought they were. And that most of those kids were redeemable and far too many of them are thrown away.

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