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Education for All?

By Lory Hough, on September 4, 2013 3:45 PM

Lynette TannisPhoto by Martha Stewart

It started with a tug that wouldn't go away. Lynette Tannis, Ed.M.'10, Ed.D.'13, was sitting in church one Sunday afternoon near her home in New Jersey, when a request went out for volunteers for the Women's Prison Ministry team. She was interested but wondered what she could offer the women. A couple of days later, at a back-to-school event at the high school where she was working as a literacy coordinator, Tannis happened to sit next to a stranger who recognized her from church and mentioned that she was on the Women's Prison Ministry team. A week later, in the staff lounge, another teacher mentioned a woman they both knew who, as it turns out, was also doing prison ministry work.

"Well, this confirmed for me that I was supposed to get involved," Tannis says. For the next three years, she visited women at two correctional facilities on Saturdays and Sundays, talking to them about their lives and how they faltered. They would sing songs and read the Bible. Sometimes, she helped people she knew: the parents of former students; a young woman who tried out for the high school basketball team she coached. The experience was, she says, very humbling.

"After we left and hopped into the church van to return to church, I'd sit quietly, my heart too deep and troubled to speak," she says. "I was no different than these women. One poor choice can completely alter someone's path."

The tug came back a few years later when, as a student at the Ed School, she had to write a research paper for a class with Senior Lecturer Kitty Boles, Ed.D.'91.

"I thought about those women and how eager they were," she says. "It got me thinking about young people."

Although she came to the Ed School to study school leadership, she decided to follow the tug further and look into this new topic: how incarcerated students are educated. What she found was disturbing. Only 65 percent of the juvenile justice facilities in the United States offer an educational program for incarcerated young people. Only 47 percent of this population on IEPs receive educational services.

"We're not doing enough," Tannis says. As she wrote in her dissertation, focused on four juvenile facilities in Florida, "many people believe all children are entitled to a high-quality education, yet this sentiment becomes less pervasive when the children are our nation's incarcerated youth."

The sentiment was driven home during a visit to a juvenile facility.

"One of the guards stated, 'Why are you even bothering?'" she says. "We still have this belief that these kids were bad, so why should we take resources from our 'good children.'"

We all make mistakes, she says, and if we want to prevent kids from repeating them, we have to educate them.

"They are coming to a community near you. Do you want them better educated when they come out?" she says. "If society expects incarcerated youth to be transformed when they return to their communities, these youth must be exposed to high-quality education in addition to other resources, like counseling and therapy, provided by the juvenile justice facilities."

In some ways, being locked up is an optimal setting for young people to learn.

"The distractions have been removed," Tannis says. As part of her qualitative research, Tannis also interviewed and observed the educators who work with incarcerated youth.

"It's not for the faint of heart," she says, "but I saw a love and passion for the work. These educators want to be there. One teacher sprayed potpourri before every class. She wanted a nice setting. In some facilities, there was student work posted all over. In another, a sign said, 'Head up at all times.'"

Tannis says she hopes that the research produced from her dissertation helps push the discussion — and the actions taken — concerning young people who are incarcerated.

"We as a society need to understand that all of our youth need to be successful," she says. "It's important that we don't just pass them aside. It's our mindset that needs to change. And it's up to me and others to ring the alarms."

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