New program helps teens adjust from jail to school
TorStar.com – news/gta
31 July 2012. Louise Brown
Six months ago they were the kind of social outcast everyone’s suddenly talking about — young black men in trouble with the law, out of school, fresh out of jail and out of hope that much would change.
One boy had earned some credits in jail but had never gone to an actual high school. Another had been to three schools but passed only a couple of courses. None said they had the nerve or know-how to find their way back into school on their own.
With no money, no education and no role models, experts say it’s no wonder 70 per cent go back to jail.
But this summer, in the high school where student Jordan Manners was shot, 32 of these boys are coming to school every day. It’s the summer part of an unusual new program that has helped them earn four to five credits since March in subjects such as English, public speaking, media and leadership. They pledge out loud each morning to “act with dignity and character.” Some have joined Toastmasters to polish up their public speaking and get a crash course in workplace rules like pulling up your pants and being on time.
And on top of free bus tokens to get to school and a free lunch when they’re here, they also earn minimum wage, partly for community work like making presentations at educational conferences, but also to help keep them from turning to crime for cash.
If this is Hug-a-Thug, it works, say the boys themselves. There’s a waiting list of 30 more eager to join.
“What a ridiculous thing to call it, but if it weren’t for a program like this, we’d be back in jail again because we’d probably go sell some drugs or rob someone to get money,” said Darrel, 16. “What Rob Ford doesn’t know is that these programs do help.”
Because of their involvement with the justice system, the Star cannot use the real names of students in this program, the first of its kind in Ontario for teens coming out of jail.
However the future of this partnership between the Toronto District School Board and the youth-led agency Redemption Reintegration Services is at risk, with no school board money earmarked yet for teachers this fall, and the agency’s Youth Challenge Fund money due to run out next spring.
“We have failed young black men and we need to connect with them differently; we need to be socially and culturally relevant to the needs they bring to class,” said Jim Spyropoulos, the board’s co-ordinating superintendent of inclusive schools.
“So if you want to call a program like this Hug-a-thug, go ahead — all I know is these young guys are sitting here on a hot Friday afternoon working on public speaking instead of causing problems.”
Staff have been hand-picked for their knowledge of the boys’ world; their morning teacher, Sam Egonu, served time for a gun offence and now runs the educational agency 180 Change Street. The afternoon teacher, Michael Hinds, is from Breaking the Cycle, which helps mentor street youth.
The unusual partnership of agencies involved in the summer part of the program was spearheaded by Kerri Wilson, coordinator of the Jane-Finch community group PEACH, Promoting Education and Community Health.
During the school year, when there was no room for the program in a regular high school, Redemption Services rented rooms in industrial space in Etobicoke and Scarborough for classes, careful not to choose a site affiliated with one particular gang.
Program leader Devon Jones is a veteran teacher in Jane and Finch who has taught students who have killed and students who have been killed, including Manners, the 15-year-old shot at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate in 2007.
The burly, outgoing father of two texts these teens around the clock to make sure they’ve done their homework and are OK.
“It’s kind of spiritual to get his texts; it’s a good vibe because we know he cares,” said John. “There was a shooting in my neighbourhood one weekend and he like called me three times to make sure I was OK.
“We need more schools like this, where teachers care,” he said. “But it can’t be some ordinary teacher that has some house in Whitby who doesn’t know us. You have to have someone who’s been here, who can tell us ‘That’s not the life.’”
Sociology professor Carl James of York University praised the program for helping young people leaving prison adjust to mainstream culture “because they have been immersed in a culture of custody and they can’t leave it behind without support.”
But it can work, insisted Darrell. “If this continues for another year I think I should be back on track, and then I want to go to college, maybe for cyber arts or maybe to be a mechanic.”
It helps to tailor the Ontario curriculum to their lives, said Jones, who weaves readings from Malcolm X and Martin Luther King with the Star’s series on racial profiling and articles about Canada’s coming new mandatory minimum sentences. Students discussed a federal research paper on street gangs and read Bill Gates’ “11 Rules for Living (1: Life is not fair; get used to it.”)
Said Jones: “This is far from Hug-a-Thug; we’re tough. We want them to get used to the standards in the real world.”
While these teens have aptitude, they can be “functionally illiterate and they need wraparound services from people who speak their language,” said Victor Beausoleil, executive director of Redemption Reintegration Services, which provides them with advice on housing, jobs, clothing and even has a barbershop in the office for students who can’t afford a haircut when they get out of jail.
One of the Redemption workers sends students a motivational text message every morning at 6:30.
That’s important, said Beausoleil, because “once these kids feel they don’t belong, that’s when it starts.”
Pledge of Success (students say by memory each day)
Today is a new day, a new beginning.
It has been given to me as a new gift.
I can either use it or throw it away.
What I do today will affect me tomorrow.
I must act with dignity and character.
I cannot blame anyone but myself if I do not succeed.
I promise to use this day to the fullest by giving my best, realizing it can never come back again.
This is my life and I choose to make it a success.
Written by teacher Devon Jones.