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Extra care gives young offenders chance to learn

October 27, 2003|by BRIAN SHAPPELL

shappell@herald-mail.com

Juveniles being held at the Western Maryland Children's Center are getting the extra care and attention in the classroom that may not have been available to many of them in more conventional school settings, the supervisor of the center's teachers said.

Juvenile offenders at the Children's Center, like their counterparts attending public or private high schools, are spending a large portion of their time in a classroom. The center's education program is designed as a 30-day program providing the "basics" mandated by the Maryland Department of Education, Teachers Supervisor Melanie Graves said.

Those "basics" include studies in reading, math, writing skills, social studies and health, Graves said. And at the new center on Roxbury Road, a $7.5 million facility that opened in early September, the program also gives students practice on computers and courses in life skills that include finding a job, personal banking and cooking, Graves said.

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She said the program has been well-received by approximately two dozen students who have passed through the center since its opening.

"We have not had a lot of problems," Graves said. "They seem interested. Occasionally, there's a behavior problem, but it's basic stuff you'd expect in a public high school."

However, Graves said those who misbehave at the center are held more accountable than typical high school students because of their environment.

Because there are a total of 12 juveniles at the center and a maximum capacity of 24, juveniles get a learning plan that is more focused on their needs, Graves said. That is important because many of the juveniles who have ended up in custody have some type of learning disability or special educational need, she said.

"I see these kids as needing extra care or concern," said Graves, who last taught at the Victor Cullen Academy in Sabillasville, Md., a reform school that closed last year. "Most of them have been failed - someone has failed them or something has failed them."

Graves said it also is easier for area juveniles to focus on their studies and what they will do in the future because, with a facility closer to their home, there is more involvement from families. It also means the center has a closer link to a nearby community than a facility in the eastern portion of the state, she said.

"I think we're realizing that in keeping them in a smaller population and close to home, you're going to get a better response," she said.

Graves, a Pennsylvania native and a 1994 Shippensburg (Pa.) University graduate who studied criminal justice, said she became interested in pursuing a career in teaching at a similar facility after tutoring at one during college.

"This is my niche," she said. "I couldn't imagine working with any other population."

She earned her first teaching certificate from Maryland approximately six years ago and continues to study through the Maryland Department of Education program.

"School never ends for teachers," she said.

Another key component to the educational process at the center is the teachers' awareness of other aspects of the juveniles' lives while being housed at the center, including emotional, medical and psychological, Graves said. She said it helps her and the other teachers get a clearer, quicker picture of the juveniles and their needs.

Graves said the Children's Center is more about treatment than punishment. She also said it is a last chance for many of the older juveniles who come through to turn their lives around.

"Some kids will think, 'this is enough,' and not return," Graves said.

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