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Trying To Help Teens

October 2, 2006
By COLIN POITRAS, Courant Staff Writer

Fresh out of juvenile detention and back at Hartford High, the 14-year-old boy was already skipping class and hanging with the wrong people.

Members of the school's ACTIONS team quickly moved in. Two caseworkers pulled the boy aside as he arrived at school. They encouraged him to change his ways, reminded him about the importance of a good education.

The next day, a bilingual caseworker met with the boy's mother at her home. Together, they worked out a plan to meet regularly with the boy's teachers to stay on top of his work and help him avoid troublesome peers while "saving face."

The boy's school attendance and participation improved. For the next several months, ACTIONS support staff will continue to monitor his attendance, his grades, his demeanor - ready to pounce again if he starts to slip.

ACTIONS stands for Active Community Transitions in Our Neighborhoods and Schools. New to the Hartford school district this fall, it is the latest weapon in the never-ending battle to keep at-risk kids out of trouble and in school.

Patterned after several nationally acclaimed programs in places such as Milwaukee, Wis., ACTIONS offers kids coming out of the juvenile justice system intense "wraparound" services that include tracking, mentoring, tutoring, life-skills, substance abuse counseling, job training and family advocacy.

State and local officials from the governor on down are counting on it to be a success.

"When these young people return to their homes, it is absolutely critical that they successfully re-enter their schools too," Gov. M. Jodi Rell said. "In the short term, we want them to stay out of trouble - and, in the long run, we want them to have the opportunity to grow into independent and responsible adults."

The program is a joint venture between the Hartford public school system and the Department of Children and Families, which provides funding and oversight. The day-to-day interventions are run by a team of experienced local service providers including Catholic Charities' Hartford Choice program, the Futures Alternative Education Program and AFCAMP (African Caribbean American Parent Support Group).

While the Hartford program has only 12 boys now, it is funded for up to 45, officials said. The legislature approved $915,000 for this year's Hartford launch. The money includes an independent evaluation of its merits by staff from Central Connecticut State University. Another $342,500 was appropriated for a program in New Haven launching in January. Talk already has started about expanding the services to Waterbury and Bridgeport.

The obstacles are many for kids coming out of juvenile justice programs. Many have been away from formal public schooling for months, if not years.

Although the students may be old enough for the ninth or 10th grade, many have reading and math skills below the seventh-grade level, officials say. The frustrations of adapting to school and making up lost academic time - combined with some schools' limited resources for helping youth with such things as basic literacy - can add up to a near perfect storm of failure. Add to that Hartford's difficult registration process and strict "zero tolerance" policies that can lead to suspensions for even minor offenses and it is no wonder so many kids wind up in the streets, in trouble and in jail, experts and advocates say.

To combat those factors, ACTIONS team members start drawing up specialized education plans and goals for kids three months before their discharge from incarceration. Kids stay with the program for at least eight months.

Experts know that educational involvement, jobs and positive and consistent adult role models are critical to reducing recidivism. But until recently, such support has been sporadic or unavailable. Youths were pretty much left on their own once they were discharged.

One recent study showed that less than a third of teens leaving detention programs were still enrolled in school one year after release. About a third withdrew after a troubled start. A great number never bothered to re-enter.

State officials say more than two-thirds of the children at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School are parole violators who returned to the facility - not because they committed new offenses - but because they failed to adhere to the strict rules at other residential centers or in the community, including regular attendance at school.

"All of these kids really do want to graduate," said Cindy Rutledge, DCF's program director in charge of juvenile services and alternative education. "As long as somebody shows an interest in their education and supports their parents, ... these kids are able to be successful."

State Rep. Marie Lopez Kirkley-Bey, D-Hartford, says she sees kids hanging out in the streets because they failed in school or no longer feel welcome or supported there. Kirkley-Bey runs a community center on Martin Street in Hartford's North End.

"Anything and everything that helps these kids, I'm for," Kirkley-Bey said. "We've devoted an awful lot of attention to early childhood intervention, but we're not giving these [teenagers] the kind of support they need to keep them motivated. I've heard kids say teachers told them, `I don't care whether you make it or not, I'm getting paid.'"

In order to help kids succeed, family advocates from AFCAMP help educate and advise parents struggling to navigate the school system. They help parents with transportation to school meetings and regularly attend and offer support.

"I've seen three generations of babies having babies," Kirkley-Bey said. "The system has failed these kids. If a 14-year-old kid has a 28-year-old mother, she probably doesn't want to go to the PTA."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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