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Left Out Of Statewide Education Funding Increases, Arizona Schools In Rural Juvenile Detention Centers Seek More Money

Schools in rural juvenile detention centers didn’t get any of the new education funding distributed across the state last year including money for teacher raises.

There’s a statewide push to incarcerate fewer young people and juvenile crime is dropping. Nonetheless, last year more than 1,000 young people attended at least one day of school in a rural juvenile detention center.

The formula that funds education programs for incarcerated kids in Cochise, Mohave, Pinal, Santa Cruz, Yavapai, Yuma and La Paz county hasn't changed since the 1990s.

“The funding that we have right now in place in statute to fund those educational efforts for our incarcerated youth is not adequate,” said Sen. Heather Carter, a Republican representing North Phoenix and Cave Creek.

Carter sponsored a bill that would quintuple the base level funding for these schools from $20,000 to $100,000 a year.

“They’re kids in a bad situation or that made a bad choice,” said Pinal County School Superintendent Jill Broussard. “I think they deserve a great education and a good opportunity to move forward with their life.”

Inside A Juvenile Detention Center School

Before I can enter the Yavapai County Juvenile Justice Center I walk through a metal detector and a guard makes sure my audio equipment isn’t a weapon or other contraband.

Principal Marvy McNeese takes me through four secured doors to the classroom. Once I’m inside it feels familiar— there’s Harry Potter on the bookshelves, a globe, maps and an agenda outlining today’s lessons on the whiteboard.  

There are a few differences though.

The teachers sharpen the pencils for students and the writing utensils are numbered so none leave the classroom.

Today, there are about 20 teens.

One of the challenges for teachers in detention centers is the class size changes from day to day.

“When they first come in we know their name and their age and that is all we know,” McNeese said.

The teachers assess kids’ reading, math and language skills and get them enrolled in the right classes within hours. Students may be there for a few days or a few months depending on how their case is adjudicated.

McNeese said there were about 1,160 students enrolled in school at juvenile detention centers in Yavapai, Yuma, Santa Cruz, Pinal, Mohave and Cochise counties last year.

“It’s a smaller concentrated population of kids with higher needs, both emotional and academic,” McNeese said.

For example, 22 percent of her students last year required special education services.

The principal said her school is seeing fewer federal dollars and most of their funding has always come from the state.

“The services for our most needy population are going to be compromised,” McNeese said.

School like hers receive $20,000 a year in base funding plus $15 a day for each student. The schools are required to provide 240 minutes of instruction a day for at least 225 days a year. Traditional Arizona public schools are required to have 180 instructional daysa year.

The Yavapai County detention school has the luxury of multiple teachers.

That’s not the case in smaller Arizona juvenile detention centers including the one where Dana Gallardo works in Santa Cruz County.   

“I’m the education director there and I’m the teacher and I’m the intake person and the registrar and I do everything there now because our funds have been cut so drastically,” Gallardo told the Senate Education Committee on March 4.

She said staff at the detention center school has been reduced from six people to just her.

In Pinal County, Superintendent Jill Broussard had to go to local elected leaders and ask for money two years ago.

At the time, the school reduced classes to four days a week and staff had to take unpaid time off.

“If we couldn't get some relief in the funding area, we’d have to close the school and that would force us to have to close the facility,” Broussard said.

The county allocated $145,334.31 to the school this year. Broussard used that with funding from the previous year to keep the school open, hire new teachers and extend classes to five days a week.

The juvenile detention centers in Graham, Greenlee, Gila, Navajo and Apache counties have all closed.

So the Pinal County school serves teens incarcerated from those counties too.

Lawsuit Prompted Arizona Juvenile Detention Reform

Arizona lawrequires juvenile detention centers to offer an education program.

There was a lawsuit filed in 1986 by a detainee that was expanded to become a class-action lawsuit.

The plaintiffs described a “system run amuck" with “arbitrary and cruel” disciplinary procedures. The suit also said dozens of youth with disabilities were denied special education services.

A federal judge eventually ordered reforms including new education, counseling, mental health and vocational training programs, protection of detainees from punishment and the hiring of more staff to create a safer environment.

The funding formula for juvenile detention center schools was part of Arizona’s lawmakers' attempt to improve the system.

It hasn’t changed since 1994 and today affects juvenile detention center schools in Cochise, Mohave, Pinal, Santa Cruz, Yavapai and Yuma counties. 

Senate Bill 1104 would increase the base level funding for the schools from $20,000 to $100,000 a year and per-student funding from $15 to $25 per day.

The formula already provides additional funding for students with disabilities and is adjusted for growth.

These schools also receive federal funds, but a change to how the state distributes those funds a few years ago lead to less money for some schools. Other counties with juvenile detention centers such as Maricopa and Pima run their schools through a separate accommodation school which is funded differently.

Education leaders KJZZ spoke with in Yuma and Cochise Counties both reported cuts to staffing and an inability to update instructional materials given the current funding.

The goal of the bill is to give every school enough money for at least one certified teacher and more supplies.

“The amount is such a small amount, but it has such a big impact,” Carter said. 

The bill has passed the Senate and awaits a hearing in the House Rules Committee. It could also become part of larger budget discussions in the Legislature. 

Juvenile Detention Center Students Make Progress With 'Hard Work, Determination'

In the meantime, educators like Marvy McNeese in Prescott help students achieve their goals with with existing funding. 

“We had last week a 16-year-old pass his GED and he is the first person in his whole family to have earned anything academic,” McNeese said.

This student got to sign his name to the the whiteboard wall in McNeese’s office. It joins a growing list of those who earned their GED while at the Yavapai County Juvenile Justice Center.

McNeese started as a special education teacher at the Yavapai County Juvenile Justice Center fifteen years ago. She said working with these students is a calling.

“When they understand what they can accomplish with work, hard work and determination, it’s magical,” McNeese said.

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Mariana Dale rustles up stories as a senior field correspondent based out of KJZZ’s East Valley Bureau in Tempe. She’s followed a microphone onto cattle ranches, to the Dominican Republic and many places in between. Dale believes in a story’s strength to introduce us to diverse perspectives, inspire curiosity and hold public leaders accountable for their actions. She started at KJZZ on the digital team in 2016 and still spends a lot of time thinking about how to engage with our community online. Dale has learned from stints at Arizona Public Media, The Arizona Daily Star, The Arizona Republic and as an intern at NPR’s Morning Edition in Culver City. She graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Dale is grateful for the mentoring of the New York Times Student Journalism Institute, the Chips Quinn Scholars program and AIR’s New Voices Scholars. A desert native, she loves spending time outside hiking, tending to her cactus and reading.