Ada County staff connects kids to classrooms instead of prison cells

Ada County officials want to improve outcomes for troubled kids — those who’ve been arrested and find themselves on probation or in detention. As opposed to detainment, county managers and educators aspire to connect these at-risk kids with a community. A big part of that is school.  

Ada County Juvenile Services educators and staff want to keep kids invested in school. 

The county agency applies strategies to address a multitude of issues to get kids back onto a more constructive path in life and in school. This means identifying gaps in family and communal support and delivering necessary mental health counseling, incentive-based education programs, career and personal finance instruction and a positive environment for underserved youth.

“I’ve worked in places and seen how people get caught up in the system,” Jessica Barawed, Ada County’s juvenile detention division manager said. “If you can be proactive and keep people connected to the community instead of to the system, let’s do it. Let’s not feed into the adult corrections facilities.”

Classwork that aims to reinforce an encouraged attitude at the Ada Juvenile facility.
Classwork that aims to reinforce an encouraged attitude at the Ada Juvenile facility.

Barawed spent her career working in correctional facilities, from “really terrible ones to the most amazing.” This includes 15 years with the San Diego Sheriff’s Department and time spent working to rehabilitate San Quentin prison inmates. Now, she oversees classrooms of 10- to 16-year old Ada County inmates who work towards credit recovery to get back on a high school graduation track.

There are 12 kids in Ada County detention today. This number hovered around 40 during COVID, Barawed said, but officials want to keep this number as low as possible. The aim is to only detain for “criminogenic needs” — offenders that might be a societal threat. Even with that, the intention is to provide an environment where these teens might be able to turn things around.

“We’re trying to make the environment better. It’s just so important,” Barawed said. “So many people walk in here and are like, ‘Oh, this is like a classroom. And this is like a school. And it’s clean.’ We are so fortunate with the resources we have.”

Barawed, along with two full-time teachers, a special education specialist and a Boise schools principal develops holistic diagnoses to determine why incarcerated juveniles have struggled to attend and to succeed in class. Factors like mental health strains from a lack of basic emotional and economic needs being met contribute to antisocial behavior that’s led to detainment.

“We know that youth have already received their consequence coming to detention. We don’t need to keep piling on,” Barawed said. “Let’s try and motivate them to get them where they need to be to be successful.”

Staff focus on applying creative treatment and incentives, “little things that go a long way,” such as healthy snack incentives as an instant reward for attending class. There is also consideration for mental health breaks and outdoor time.

The Ada County juvenile education facility is built like a school instead of a prison. Class and reading rooms are painted in bright, natural colors with walls festooned with positive messages, student work and class accomplishments. Bookshelves line the walls of every class in addition to the reading and multimedia rooms. Desktop computer stations sit alongside desks.

“I am of the belief that we can create magic in here,” Barawed said.

The importance of this environment is the reason why director Alison Tate secured American Rescue Plan Act funds to construct a $1.6 million outdoor facility “in place of a cage.” A metal, barrel-shaped roof will enclose an area with room for court sports alongside an artificial turf lawn for play. There will be shaded space for clinicians to meet with kids that need to “blow off some steam,” according to Tate.

“Staff will feel safe taking the youth out there, so we’re excited about that,” Tate said.

This is all work towards incorporating a recidivism-reducing setting where rehabilitative programming is emphasized. For low-risk offenders, Ada County has an additional program to get back students on track: Education Career Opportunity.

Education Career Opportunity

Founded in 2016, ECO is a state-funded program designed to meet the individual needs of court-involved youth — at-risk and probationary. ECO is specifically for youth on probation and is provided by Ada County as a service to the court. Overseen by programs division manager Jeff Schatz, not only are ECO kids on probation for criminal violations, they are vulnerable to not completing their high school education. Barriers not only include a juvenile offense and probation, but the costs of a preparing and taking all four GED section exams — books, computers, study materials, test costs and more. The ECO program eliminates those barriers as Ada County pays for those costs.

“We were in crisis. We knew that there was a gap for the kids that we serve where traditional school may not be an option,” Schatz said. “We went and explained this to the board of county commissioners. The solution was the ECO program. And they said, ‘Let’s do it.’ And within a week or so, we were up and running.”

The current ECO teacher, Kristi Swanson, has 25 years of experience helping to prevent truancy. Working in alignment with its community partner, the Idaho Connect Online School education provider, ECO students can choose credit retrieval in working towards a transition back to school and a diploma or they can pursue a GED.

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“ICON is a great partner for us because they can provide subject matter expertise on say, a senior project or something like that,” Schatz said. “And if we do get to the point where our teacher is overwhelmed (with students), they will supply us with an additional teacher free of charge.”

The program’s arms include mental health, family and substance-abuse counseling. There is also academic and vocational assistance — study help, scheduling guidance, financial help for tests, career counseling and more.

ECO students not only pursue credit recovery and GED options, but can acquire employability skills like resume building, job search, interviewing skills and work maturity skills. For students pursuing jobs after education completion, they can also enroll in independent living skills like personal finance, household management and nutrition. A community resource specialist provides personalized direction and even transportation to interviews.

This personalized devotion for ECO students allows students to work at their own pace. Because youths enter the program at various levels of education and at various needs to earn GEDs, the numbers can be difficult to pin down, but the last two years does indicate a rise in the number and percentage of students who earn GED certificates. In 2022, 15 students out of 48 earned GEDs. In 2023, out of 44 GED students, 19 earned GEDs.

What is clear to administrators is that the people surrounding these kids working towards adulthood found support in working through ECO.

“The thing that kind of made me sit back is you have kids that are not involved in a traditional school and are going through this on their own, the family support that they had is pretty impressive,” Schatz said.

In order to augment that, Ada County Juvenile Services decided to hold a celebration for students that earned this accomplishment.

“We didn’t really know what we were doing or how we wanted it to go down, but it turned out really nice,” Schatz said.

This year, the second year of the celebration at Liberty Park, turned out families from about 10 graduates, including David Castillo-Rojas, a father supporting a son as a head chef at Applebee’s, has dreams of heading to college in the fall to major in business.

“I’m very happy and proud now, thinking about a bright future,” Castillo-Rojas said.


Matt Denis

Matt Denis

Reporter Matt Denis is based in the Treasure Valley and has served as an educator and a journalist. Prior to national digital reporting and founding an arts and culture section in Eugene, Oregon, Matt worked as an English and history teacher in Detroit, San Diego, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. You can send news tips to [email protected].

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