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Project-based science curriculum raises achievement in Tennessee

Pitsco Education, Niswonger Foundation makes a difference at low-performing school

Among the Modules that YDC students are most eager to explore is Forensic Science, where hands-on activities require students to work closely together and rely on each other.

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Juvenile offenders are not typical teenagers. Many have behavior disorders, learning disabilities, and a tendency to disengage from traditional forms of education. In fact, North Carolina reports that more than 60 percent of the youth in its Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (DOJJDP) system had serious problems in school during the 12 months prior to their disposition.

Yet the education programs at the state’s Youth Development Centers (YDCs) – long-term facilities for the most hardened juvenile offenders – are expected, like any other public schools, to meet annual yearly progress (AYP) and turn out students who meet state academic standards as part of their rehabilitation efforts.

That’s a tall order by any measure. So how do they do it?

“When we get students several grade levels behind, our goal is to take them from where they are to where they need to be, and that can be a slow process,” says Choya Boykin, principal at C.A. Dillon YDC. “We want them to learn from their mistakes and return to their communities as productive citizens.”

Traditional education methods and approaches didn’t work for most students prior to their adjudication to a YDC, so alternative learning systems are the only hope.

That’s how DOJJDP Director of Special Projects and Technology Mia Murphy came to recommend that the Pitsco Education Module program be installed at Samarkand YDC in 2005. The Modules’ unique approach to learning through hands-on, career-focused curriculum that also meets state standards quickly caught on.

Three years later, when curriculum was needed for several new YDCs, the department recognized the Modules’ success at Samarkand and opted to implement them in all nine of the state’s YDCs.

“The Modules were looked at as kind of a carrot. Students had to make sure their behavior was a certain way if they wanted to do this,” Murphy said. “There are certain Modules everyone wants to get to, so this is also a motivator.”

Effectiveness with special needs students, a design that accommodates safety and security concerns, and content that engages and exposes students to career possibilities have made the Module curriculum a key piece of the education plan for North Carolina YDCs.

Special needs

Chris Wilmoth, the literacy coach at Swannanoa Valley YDC and a trained facilitator of the Module program, has worked in the system for nearly a decade. “These kids tend to learn a little bit differently. We need to remember that and think about that,” he said. “It is the age but also the issues of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and ADD (attention deficit disorder) – those things like that too.”

The former director at Samarkand when Modules were first employed there, Donald Burns now directs the Chatham YDC. He says the Module program is effective with an unusually high percentage of YDC residents.

“I think for the vast majority, more than 80 percent of our kids, a lightbulb comes on,” Burns said. “I think that’s a real high percentage based on our population because so many of our kids are ECs (exceptional children) and have learning disabilities.”

When such normally difficult-to-reach students become interested and engaged in learning, success and self-confidence soon follow.

“There’s a background here of a lot of failure, disappointment, rejection in school,” Wilmoth explained. “So a lot of students, this is their first time being successful or being praised in a school setting. When they get to us, they’ve been kicked out of everywhere else possible. If they have success here, that can help to build them up.”

Self-paced cooperative learning

The self-paced cooperative learning within the Module program provides a “safe” and relatively comfortable educational experience for students, most of whom are ages 13-17.

“A lot of our students are low functioning, and they’re not exposed by their peers when working on these Modules in pairs,” said Deborah Cham, lead teacher at Swannanoa Valley. “They’re more willing to try it because they feel safe they won’t be exposed. We’re letting them work at their own pace.”

Going a step further, Cham cites the benefits of students working in pairs. “The Modules are set up in teams of two, and two heads are better than one. I truly believe in that. ‘What I may not grasp when I’m doing this Module, you can help me.’ When you see students helping each other, that in itself is motivation for each of them.”

Andres Fils-aime, a Module lab facilitator at Chatham, an all-female facility, said the cooperative learning requirement has a way of diffusing tense one-on-one situations because students must rely on each other to complete the curriculum.

“Sometimes these girls have issues with one another, but they actually have to put their problems aside and have to learn to work with each other,” Fils-aime said. “That’s what this program implements. I’ve seen girls sit together and not want to share a mouse. Then by the end of class they’re laughing and working together, especially if it’s a Module that they’re really interested in like Forensic Science or Microwave Cooking.”

YDC students learn better by seeing and doing than by reading and listening. “The majority of our students are visual and tactile/kinesthetic – hands-on – so the concepts of the Synergy lab tend to work well in that it is visual and it is hands-on. They’re actually doing something,” Wilmoth said.

He added that students’ solid test scores, detailed projects, and obvious pride reflect the success of the program.

“Whenever they get through with something, they’ll say ‘I created this. I made this.’ And there’s a pride in those accomplishments they were able to make and able to do.”

Phyllis Jones, the lead teacher at Dillon YDC, concurred. “Special ed kids are kinesthetic folks, and they really enjoy the Modules where they put things together or produce a product. We have 53 students right now that are in the EC program, and a lot of them went through this class in the spring. They really enjoyed it.”

Career connections

All students want to know why they need to learn, and juvenile offenders might be even more adamant about getting an acceptable answer before proceeding with their education. The best answer might be career preparation, which is apparent at every turn in the Modules.

“The word has gotten out about how successful the lab is,” Jones said. “The kids at this age are interested in different kinds of jobs, and this is the way for them to find out about them. It’s like an extension of our career development class. This helps them make better choices because the class exposes them to many topics and careers.”

Module Facilitator Bradley Collins of Swannanoa Valley refers to the lab as “a career class that reinforces what they’re doing in English, math, and social studies.”

Collins and Facilitator Michael Lewis of Dillon YDC are hoping to make the career connection even stronger by inviting professionals from their communities to speak with students. The special guests lined up so far have careers in line with Module topics such as bankers (Personal Finance) and a pilot (Flight Technology).

Boykin, meanwhile, views the Modules not only as tools to help rehabilitate his students before they rejoin their communities but also as preparation for possible future careers.

“I would endorse this program across the state of North Carolina,” Boykin said. “This gives schools an extra elective to help students emphasize careers. When you think about flight simulation, forensic science, audio broadcasting, computer animation, practical skills – these are all things that students can take out into the real world. They will have specific skills to help them achieve those goals.”


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