Locked Up and Learning

Once you land in juvenile detention, is it too late for your education? Not if teachers like George Zier can help it.

George Zier has been teaching science within the walls of the Clark County Juvenile Detention Center for 14 years. And he says he wouldn’t have it any other way. | Photo by Jon Estrada

George Zier has been teaching science within the walls of the Clark County Juvenile Detention Center for 14 years. And he says he wouldn’t have it any other way. | Photo by Jon Estrada

When I taught high school, I posed this question to my students: “What if you could, without retribution, stay home and not be required to go to school, ever?” Predictably, students were excited by such a prospect, and the class always erupted in giddy speculation, like a group of adults discussing what they’d do with their nonexistent lotto winnings. “But hold on, hold on,” I would exclaim, pressing my palms toward the floor and pausing until the students fell silent. “What if I added, ‘because you are not worth educating?’” Brows furrowed as they parsed my words and the sentiment that lay behind them. Most often, I’d get a few angry voices from those who recognized the implied insult. I would go on to explain that while they might not think school is all that grand and getting up every morning sure can be a drag, the fact that we adults make them come to school is a clear sign that we do believe they are worth educating.

This notion—that educating a child is a gesture of faith in the child’s worth—should be at top of mind for anyone who visits the Clark County Juvenile Detention Center on the corner of Pecos and Bonanza roads. The center also functions as a school: Middle- and high-schoolers live in 28-person pods, which consist of two dayrooms adorned with stainless-steel seats on bolted-down benches, a reinforced glass monitoring station and two aquarium classrooms. After school, instead of heading home, these students walk a few paces from their classrooms to foam mattresses on concrete slabs poured inside a series of single-bed cells.

It is only when we strip education back to its essentials that we can see how much we do to show these young offenders that they are worthy of an education—even if those efforts are lost on the larger public, who see only the windowless walls and hear only the pejorative: “juvie.”

On the day I looked in, the detention facility manager, Carolyn Banks, told me there were 141 minors being held, all between the ages of 11 and 18. Most of them were awaiting adjudication of their cases before moving on to probation or release or possibly to long-term incarceration. They don’t hang around long: The median stay in the center is just six to seven days, says Robert Henry, the Clark County School District’s director of adult education, adult corrections and adult English language learner programs who oversees the system’s 33 teachers and counselors. Many cases process through in just one or two days.

Science teacher George Zier, a 14-year veteran of the detention center, has no illusions about the challenges he faces—but he says he wouldn’t teach anywhere else. “It’s triage,” he says. “We’re dealing with the airway, then we can get down to circulation. We’ve got to get them on task; we’ve got to get them on behavior; we’ve got to get them wanting to go back to school. There is a lot of cheerleading going on here.”

When I ask Zier how he manages to get through to kids who are often in his class for less than a week, he excitedly engages the question as he flips around his laptop and begins clicking through a chain of directories and lesson plans, engaging me with the kind of educational esoterica that brushes away any vestiges of my, “Why bother?” attitude, and convinces me he is there to educate every student, even kids he may see for only one 40-minute class period.

He leans in and effuses: “When you get a kid who first comes in for that day, I don’t throw a big book at him. I’ve taken each one of my units and broken it down into three parts. Right now, for instance, I am working with fossilization: If the kid knows the difference between permineralized remains, original remains, and they know trace fossils, I know that I have given him enough. Kids can get credits all day long, but they need to pass the proficiency test to graduate. And with 800 benchmarks in a 75-question test, you better know what you are doing.”

Driving home the importance of permineralized remains to a teenager who came into his classroom in shackles can’t be easy. But Zier clearly lives for the challenge.

And the challenge can seem almost insurmountable: Teachers at the Juvenile Detention Center can’t distribute textbooks and have to keep detailed track of all materials. “We’re teaching respect for property. I have built packets from PDF files and supplemental materials, so each kid will have his own ‘book,’ and if that gets damaged or desecrated with, I guess you could say, certain cultural markings, I can build another one. [That graffiti] can cause disturbances in another classroom. I know everything that it is in my bag: 14 pencils, two erasers, two dry-erase markers, one folder with collected work, another with work that goes out. What I go into that unit with, I want to take out.”

The staff has little turnover, and Henry says the stability is essential even if kids aren’t around for long. “You have teachers who are incredibly devoted to their profession and working with these kids,” he says. “Often, the kids are starving for some responsible adult attention—and they react very positively when they get it.”

Photo by Jon Estrada

Photo by Jon Estrada

“Some of the kids who have come here have not ever read a book,” facility manager Banks says. “And they leave with books in hand and wanting more.”

For all the bright spots, of course, there are less encouraging outcomes. But data show that there may be reason for hope. While Clark County’s population has started to grow again over the last few years, Juvenile Justice Department reports show a steady decrease in both overall cases and recidivism: In 2012, total referrals dropped 18 percent, and repeat referrals fell by 16 percent. That says a lot about the dedication of teachers such as George Zier, who, in the face of long odds, never forget the worth of the kids who wind up in their classrooms.

Kurt Rice, a former high school English teacher, now teaches at Nevada State College.

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