Two Days Inside A Classroom For Young Offenders

Mar 29, 2016
Originally published on March 30, 2016 7:06 am

Set back from the main road, surrounded by trees along the Winooski River, is Vermont's only facility for youths in trouble. The building hardly looks like a jail, but young people come here from all over the state for offenses ranging from shoplifting or selling drugs to felony charges like sexual assault or murder.

When I first visited Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center, I was given a tour by a young man named Tyler. To protect their privacy, we've agreed not to use the students' last names or tell you why they're here.

When I asked Tyler about his teachers, he singled out one in particular: a woman named Lisa. "Lisa is special," he told me. "She's the only one I'll do my work for."

And so, for our 50 Great Teachers series, I came back to Woodside to see just what makes Lisa Elder so special. Over two days in her small concrete room on the second floor, I got a chance to see an educator who's been working with children for 27 years in a setting few teachers ever experience.

A place where you need a walkie-talkie just to get into your classroom. Where there are guards available if you need help. Where the list of students changes daily as kids come and go.

And where every student brings behavioral and emotional issues that mean widely different expectations. "For some kids, it's just, 'I just hope you get better,' " Elder says. " 'I hope that some day when you get angry, you aren't violent.' "

At Woodside, they teach all the normal subjects: math, English, science. But this year Lisa is teaching something called Life Skills.

I'll let her explain: "If you want to wake up in the morning and go out and greet people," she says, "we're already talking about skills right there."

Life Skills means things like how to use a napkin, how to fill out a form with good handwriting, how to open a bank account.

While some of her students struggle with the most basic assignments, she has seen others go on to get a GED and even go to college.

Most days, she says, she's teaching intangibles: empathy; forgiveness; understanding.

When I visit Woodside there are 13 students. The youngest is 12 and the oldest is days away from his 18th birthday. One boy has been here for nearly two years. Another just arrived last night.

"I'm looking at kids who are 14 years old and have been getting kicked out of school since day care," Elder says. "People give up on these kids."

For many, Woodside is the first stable place they've had. Most have experienced trauma. They come from troubled homes, foster care, even from the streets.

"We've had kids that have never used forks and spoons," she says.

Day One

Elder doesn't have a lesson plan or an attendance book. She does have her walkie-talkie. When the hallways are secure and the teachers ready, the call comes over the radio: Students are on their way up.

Three teens, two boys and one girl, shuffle into Elder's classroom. That's it for today, three students. They're dressed in Woodside's standard uniform: blue and maroon polo shirts, black shorts (no pockets) and black slip-on shoes.

"Why don't you guys have a seat and I'll tell you what we're doing," she tells them.

Today, they're going to cut out leaves from construction paper and write life skills on them: "Patience." "Hygiene." The class gets under way with just a few interruptions.

Then, Lisa notices a boy named Brandon. He's hunched over his desk and he's got his fist clenched against his chest — it's shaking. Lisa tries talking to him but gets no response.

It doesn't look like anything to me: just a boy who's not participating in class. But Elder has seen this behavior in his file, and she knows it's a warning sign.

She radios for backup: "Could I have a youth worker up in life skills?"

Despite the tension, everyone is calm. Elder's approach: Roll with it, and don't get rattled. The other students continue their work.

By the time the youth worker comes in, Brandon has turned his desk to face the back wall, and he's getting more and more agitated. He's still not responding.

"OK," she tells him, "Here are the choices: If you want to stay in my classroom and participate, I would love you to. I will do anything I can to help you. But if all you're going to do is turn your back and avoid everything people are asking of you, then I'm going to have you brought down to the unit."

She pauses for a moment. "I would like you to make the better choice and stay with me."

That's not the choice Brandon makes. It's becoming clear: He could lose control at any moment.

Elder evacuates the room, 20 minutes before class is over. As we walk down to the residential unit, she tells me: "So when I tell you that I don't know what the day is going to bring, that's a perfect example."

Even in this moment of disruption, Elder is enthusiastic as she talks with the two remaining students. They sit on the hard plastic furniture outside the cells and continue their discussion about life skills.

At 52, Elder is a bit of a hippie and a die-hard Bruce Springsteen fan. Her voice is deep and her laugh is even deeper. Her thinly framed glasses have such thick lenses her eyes bulge from the magnification. In nearly three decades of teaching at Woodside, she says she's seen just about everything.

"I have been assaulted only once in any serious manner," she says, "and I had to go back in the next day, because if I didn't, I didn't think I ever would."

She says she likes teaching here: She's good at it, and, perhaps more importantly, she connects with the students.

"You know I say this stuff to the kids: 'Public schools don't want you, or me.' "

Day Two

The next day, Elder has the same three kids from yesterday. Brandon is back at his desk and he's in good spirits, wearing a paper pirate hat. Elder and a girl named Emily are sitting on the floor cutting and coloring more leaves.

"I've been here at least four times," Emily says, referring to Woodside. She describes herself as a "handful" for her teachers and says some adults give her a hard time over her recurring troubles. But not Lisa Elder.

"She wasn't angry at me," she says.

Emily says she likes her life skills class. It's not so much the class, the curriculum or the lessons, she says. It's the teacher.

"You can just tell she cares," Emily says. "No matter how mad you get, no matter how many names you call her. In the end, you know she cares."

She repeats it again. "You just know she cares." It's like she's telling me, and reminding herself at the same time.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The NPR Ed team has been on the lookout for great teaching, and this led them to Lisa Elder. She teaches delinquent kids about manners, laundry and a good handshake. And she does this at a juvenile facility in Vermont. Elissa Nadworny has the story.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Drugs, theft, assault and life coaching - welcome to Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center, Vermont's only facility for youth in trouble. Young people come from all over the state for smaller crimes like shoplifting or selling drugs to felony charges like sexual assault or murder.

On the second floor, Lisa Elder's classroom. She doesn't teach math or English, though they're offered here. She doesn't have a lesson plan or an attendance book. She does have a large walkie-talkie.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Downstairs is ready.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: English ready.

LISA ELDER: Life skills ready.

NADWORNY: Three teens - two boys, one girl - shuffle into her concrete room. They're dressed in blue and maroon polos, black shorts, no pockets and black slip-on shoes - Woodside's standard uniform.

ELDER: Why don't you have a seat? And I'm going to tell you guys what we're doing.

NADWORNY: Lisa teaches life skills. I'll let her explain what that is.

ELDER: If you want to wake up in the morning and go out and greet people and walk into your office, walk into your classroom - those - we're already talking about skills right there that are needed.

NADWORNY: She teaches her student to use napkins, to fill out a form with good handwriting, to learn how to open a bank account.

ELDER: For some kids, it's like, God, I just hope you get better and you're able to sit in a room with three people. You know, I hope that someday when you get angry that you aren't violent.

NADWORNY: For other kids, she's seen them get their GED, even go on to college. But most days, she's teaching intangibles - empathy, forgiveness, understanding. Today, the class is cutting out leaves and writing life skills on them.

ELDER: Which is pretty cool.

NADWORNY: Completed leaves read patience, hygiene. There's a few interruptions, but it's going well. Then Lisa notices a boy named Brandon. We've agreed not to use his or any other student's last name in order to protect their privacy.

Brandon - he's upset. He's hunched over and he's got his fists clenched against his chest. It's shaking. It doesn't look like anything to me, but Lisa has seen this behavior in his file. It's a warning sign. She calls for backup.

ELDER: Could I have a youth worker come on up to life skills - nonemergent.

NADWORNY: It's amazing how calm everyone is. Lisa's approach - roll with it, don't get fazed. The youth worker comes, and by now, Brandon's turned his desk to face the back wall. He's getting more and more agitated. He's still not responding.

ELDER: OK, Brandon, here are the choices. If you want to stay in my classroom and participate, I would love you to and I will do anything I can to help you. But if all you're going to do is turn your back and avoid everything that people are asking of you, then I'm going to have you brought down to the unit. I would like you to make the better choice and stay with me.

NADWORNY: Unfortunately, that's not the choice Brandon makes. It becomes clear. He could go off at any moment. Lisa evacuates the room.

ELDER: So, like, when I tell you that I don't really know what the day's going to bring, that's a perfect example.

NADWORNY: Even in this moment, Lisa is enthusiastic, laughing and cracking jokes with the other two students. She's 52. She's a bit of a hippie and a diehard Bruce Springsteen fan. She's taught almost every school subject at Woodside - math, English, even a little science. In nearly three decades, she's seen it all.

ELDER: I have been assaulted only once in any serious manner. And I had to go back in the next day because if I didn't I didn't think I ever would.

NADWORNY: She's been going back every morning for 27 years. She likes it. She's good at it. More importantly, she connects with the kids.

ELDER: I say this after the kids - I say, you know, public schools don't want you or me.

NADWORNY: One of the biggest challenges for Lisa - her class changes daily. Kids come and go. When I visit Woodside, there's 13 kids. The oldest is days away from his 18th birthday. The youngest is 12. One boy has been there for nearly two years; another just arrived last night.

ELDER: I'm looking at kids who are 14 years old who've been getting kicked out of schools since day cares. People give up on these kids.

NADWORNY: For many, Woodside is the first stable place they've had. Most have experienced trauma. They come from troubled homes, foster care, even from the streets.

ELDER: We've had kids who've never used forks and spoons.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: If we're going to do branches, we should, like, do an outline.

ELDER: Yeah, that's - hey, my trunk is good.

NADWORNY: The next day, I return to Lisa's classroom. Brandon's back. He's in good spirits. He' wearing a paper pirate hat. Lisa and a girl named Emily are sitting on the floor.

EMILY: I've been here at least four times.

NADWORNY: She describes herself as a handful for Lisa. She says most adults were angry about her repeat visits but not Lisa.

EMILY: She didn't yell at me. She's just like, well, you shouldn't be back, but I guess it's good that you're getting the help you need.

NADWORNY: Emily says she likes life skills. It's not so much the class, the curriculum, the lessons - it's the teacher.

EMILY: She's just, like, you can tell she cares. Like, no matter how mad you get, no matter how many names you call her, you know she cares. In the end, you know she cares.

NADWORNY: She repeats it again. You just know she cares. It's almost as if she's telling me and reminding herself at the same time. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Essex, Vt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.