Locked up but Logged In: It’s Online Learning for Arkansas’s Juvenile Detention Wards


By Sarah Whites-Koditschek

A group of teens play volleyball during recess at a youth lockup facility in Harrisburg in Northeast Arkansas. They are in custody for doing things like breaking and entering, possessing a firearm, or stealing a car, and they will be there anywhere from a few months to a couple of years.

But for youth who live in such juvenile detention facilities in Arkansas, keeping up with school can be an issue.

Debbie Poulin is the legal director at Arkansas Disability Rights Arkansas, which monitors the lockups. She says before the state took over the lockups from a non-profit provider last year, the kids weren’t being taught well.

“We saw a lot of movie watching and kids just loitering around.” They spent a lot of time watching videos and didn’t have access to materials to study for the GED, an alternative to a high school diploma. “It was pretty dismal, frankly. Most of the time when we were down there our monitors would see very little in the way of teaching going on in the facility,” Poulin says.

The Division of Youth Services does a yearly revue of the facilities, but they say it wasn’t until it took over that they realized what was really going on in the classrooms.

Marcella Dalla Rosa is the director of education for the division. She says staffing teachers is complicated because there are a small number of youth at each facility around the state. At Harrisburg, there are about 20.

“In the past, like the math teacher might have geometry, algebra, in the seventh grade going on at the same time. And so that’s just a real challenge to be able to teach the kids with the different subjects during your period.”

Arkansas isn’t alone in struggling to provide a basic education to kids in detention. In 2015, The Council of State Governments found most incarcerated kids don’t get schooling equal to their public school peers. And those kids in detention tend to need more. About one in three need special education services.

Now youth in the lockups are studying a streamlined curriculum in Virtual Arkansas, the state’s online public school. After finishing their game, they will spend much of the rest of the day in front of computer screens being taught core subjects like algebra.

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