Speaking Points for May 12th GCC Listen. Act. Win. at FDR School in Cleveland, Ohio

Good evening. My name is Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith. Thank you to everyone for the opportunity to speak this evening.

I’ve been a high school teacher in Cleveland Public Schools for 18 years. The past two years I have been working in a classroom with young men being held at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center (CCJDC).

Yes. CMSD has a school at the juvenile county jail. It is called the Downtown Education Center, or “the DEC.”

I could stand here today and share the stories of tragedy, despair, and trauma that I am frequently privy to, but those stories are not mine to tell. I could also speak to the many ways that we, as a community and society, miserably fail our city’s children, which often results in their placement at CCJDC. However, tonight I am here to present some of our academic challenges, which I believe can be eradicated.

Think for a brief moment… what is the difference between a young person that has plans to attend college soon, and a young person who decides to rob a store or steal a car? (pause)

I contend, that at the most basic levels of our understanding, one young person has hope and believes they have access to a means for justice. The other young person does not see a means for justice and lacks that hope.

Working in classrooms with groups of less than 20 students, the teachers at the DEC work hard to rebuild, or create, a sense of hope in our young people.

In March, a young man who started in my classroom last school year, graduated from our school. Over the course of one year, this young man was in and out of our juvenile facility, at 2 residential facilities in 2 different counties, and he attended one of our traditional CMSD High Schools. I knew in order for him to graduate, I needed to follow him through all of his placements. Without that follow up, he would not have had an accurate transcript, would not have been placed in the correct classes, and would not have been able to earn that diploma. However, this student is only one of over 1000 children each year at the DEC that need this exhaustive follow through.

There is a disconnect between our school, residential facilities, and CMSD.

Just this week I had a student return to me who had worked hard and earned credits while he was with me the first time. He was even  promoted to his proper grade level. He told me that the CMSD school that he was enrolled at, in between his times with me at the DEC, placed him back in 9th grade classes that he had already passed and earned credits for. When he protested, he was told that “it was hard to get transcripts from the jail.” It isn’t difficult at all. We use the SAME data system. His credits and grades are in that system. Plus, we issue exit reports within a week of a student leaving us to return to their last known high school of record. He also had Fs on his report card in addition to the grades we gave him, because teachers are told that they cannot leave any blanks when report card grades are due. Can you imagine how difficult and frustrating it is for this young man? How are we, in CMSD, securing hope and justice for our young people?

There is no clear policy or explanation in place that is being communicated to regional superintendents, principals, teachers, guidance counselors, or administrative assistants, as to how to make sure that grades and credits are following students and being properly shared with the appropriate personnel.

The success that a great majority of our students experience while with us, often all seems like a lie to the families and students when CMSD issues report cards, and they see a bunch of Fs incorrectly listed on them, or they are missing credits that students have earned. This lack of communication consumes a tremendous amount of time and produces an unnecessary amount of frustration.

Mr. Gordon, you have an opportunity to set a local, state, and even national precedent for how education within the juvenile justice system can be done correctly.

Through a collaborative process that includes our staff, we ask for 3 things on behalf of students at the DEC:

  1. Ensure that a clear policy and explanation are in place with regard to record keeping for students at the DEC and other residential facilities. Make this policy available and all CMSD staff, faculty, and administrators aware of it.  
  2. Designate a CMSD key liaison responsible for receiving, requesting, sharing, and following up on academic records for kids being detained or placed in residential facilities to ensure accountability.
  3. Finally, we ask that you allow us to welcome you to the DEC for a conversation with our young people and GCC during the 2016-2017 school year, and become one of the champions of education for the young people in the juvenile justice system who need opportunity, hope, and justice just as much, if not more, than anyone else.

I believe that a conversation with the boys in my classroom will reveal that our young people do not want charity, or pity, or sympathy, but that the most important thing to them during these crucially important developmental years, is hope. They hope that if they do the right thing, the adults responsible for cultivating their future will be pushing doors open for them, so that they can enter into a realm of what is possible, and a means to true justice for all.

 

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