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How Juvenile Education is Evolving Beyond the Classroom

Southwest Key Programs / Youth Justice  / How Juvenile Education is Evolving Beyond the Classroom

In Early March, Hidalgo County’s Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program (JJAEP) faced a major decision. The World Health Organization (WHO) had just recognized the novel coronavirus as a pandemic. Schools across the nation were closing.

What were they, a program dedicated to providing a safe and structured space for juvenile offenders, going to do?

The answer was clear: Shift their education from blended learning to fully remote distance learning.

A JJAEP student completes a science activity on a whiteboard

A JJAEP student working on science classwork.

“During a regular school year, we provide blended instruction, which undoubtedly helped us transition to providing remote online learning services,” says Hidalgo JJAEP Program Director Leticia Flores. “Since we had the technology already implemented, it was straightforward for us to switch to 100% online learning.” The students were already accustomed to online learning, too, having spent three days of each week learning online.

Blended learning is an educational approach that provides students with a mix of in-classroom activities and online learning materials that can be accessed from home. It’s especially helpful for students in JJAEP because it allows their families and community to stay involved and be present in their lives without a strict five-day school week and commute.

But the pandemic meant they couldn’t continue this blended model and had to make a sudden change. Driven by passion more than ever before, Leticia’s teachers set out to shift their curriculum into fully remote lessons and partnered with families to sort out how their students could access and share the computers and mobile devices they would need to stay connected.

A Hidalgo JJAEP student practices for her music class.

As it turned out, flexibility with timing was a key element of the adjustment.  “Some students not only had their siblings, but also parents who needed the computer for work. We’ve adopted a motto: ‘Just turn it in, no matter what time or day,’ and the students have responded well, submitting work throughout the day.”

Why was it so important to not skip a beat providing these services? For these kids, who have already been through a complex and life-changing institution like the justice system, the programs services are a lifeline for keeping up with their education and changing their maladaptive behaviors. In fact, students in the program often leave with more educational credits than they would have earned at their previous schools.

For Leticia and her staff, serving this group of kids is more than a job, it’s a critical mission to change the lives of at-risk youth who rely on this life-changing support.

Every member of staff who works with students is given trauma-informed training.

Of course, JJAEP provides more than simple instruction—it’s a community that provides care and rehabilitation for students facing serious challenges. Every member of staff who works with students is given trauma-informed training. “At JJAEP, staff have received training on how to be a trauma-informed campus by understanding and recognizing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and responding with appropriate strategies to provide our students with the support they need to have a successful education.”

Before the pandemic, students had plenty of opportunities to grow with their community, too. The kids would join staff to lend a hand in the community routinely. One of their favorite activities? Monthly visits to a local nursing home to spend time with residents and help host holiday parties. A few students even recall some intense games of Lotería with residents who have years of experience.

“Every day is a new day at JJAEP, and we’re always moving forward. Our goal is to share valuable lessons in life and hold students accountable while providing direction and guidance with care.”

Though students are able to get all their work done and continue learning, they’re still excited to someday return to their physical classrooms. JJAEP has been using a tool called Remind to check in with students, asking “What kind of day are you having?” or “What do you want to share with your teachers?”

Most recently, the sentiment has been: “We miss you!”

Hidalgo County JJAEP Staff