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Locked Up But Logged In: It's Online Learning For Arkansas's Juvenile Detention Wards

Sarah Whites-Koditschek
Students at the Harrisburg lockup "zoom" with their teachers on Virtual Arkansas.

A group of teens play volleyball during recess at a youth lockup facility in Harrisburg in Northeast Arkansas. They are in custody for doing things like breaking and entering, possessing a firearm, or stealing a car, and they will be there anywhere from a few months to a couple of years.

But for youth who live in such juvenile detention facilities in Arkansas, keeping up with school can be an issue. 

Debbie Poulin is the legal director at Arkansas Disability Rights Arkansas, which monitors the lockups. She says before the state took over the lockups from a non-profit provider last year, the kids weren’t being taught well.

“We saw a lot of movie watching and kids just loitering around.”

They spent a lot of time watching videos and didn’t have access to materials to study for the GED, an alternative to a high school diploma. 

"It was pretty dismal, frankly. Most of the time when we were down there our monitors would see very little in the way of teaching going on in the facility."

"It was pretty dismal, frankly. Most of the time when we were down there our monitors would see very little in the way of teaching going on in the facility," Poulin says.

The Division of Youth Services does a yearly review of the facilities, but they say it wasn’t until it took over that they realized what was really going on in the classrooms.

Marcella Dalla Rosa is the director of education for the division. She says staffing teachers is complicated because there are a small number of youth at each facility around the state. At Harrisburg, there are about 20.

“In the past, like the math teacher might have geometry, algebra, in the seventh grade going on at the same time. And so that’s just a real challenge to be able to teach the kids with the different subjects during your period.”

Arkansas isn’t alone in struggling to provide a basic education to kids in detention. In 2015, The Council of State Governments found most incarcerated kids don’t get schooling equal to their public school peers. And those kids in detention tend to need more. About one in three need special education services. 

Now youth in the lockups are studying a streamlined curriculum in Virtual Arkansas, the state's online public school. After finishing their game, they will spend much of the rest of the day in front of computer screens being taught core subjects like algebra.

Virtual Arkansas tries to replicate a classroom with a web-camera that connects students with their teachers remotely. It's called “zooming.”

The Harrisburg kids are mostly new to online studying unless they had Virtual Arkansas in school, but they’re figuring it out.

One student, Mark, a 16-year-old from El Dorado, is doing a worksheet he will share with a teacher online.

“Guided notes is like going over lessons, and filling out what you didn’t know to see how you do it.”

His favorite subject is math.

“Because, that’s what I like to do, count money, so I like math.”

Virtual Arkansas’s curriculum is uniform across the state for public schools that use it. The lockups are no different.

Division staff say that makes it easier for the students to stay on track with their public school peers as they move in and out of custody.

The lockup teachers coach the kids with their online classwork in person in addition to the online teacher. Virtual Arkansas tracks how long the kids spend on each assignment, giving teachers information about how hard students are working. As of this fall, there is a staff person to help them study for the GED.

Daquon is an 11th grader from Jonesboro interested in environmental science. He studied online at his own school and says he’s used to it and it’s good for him.

“It helps me get my credits and catch up with a lot of work I’m missing on.”

Is it bad to spend all day in front of a computer screen, especially for kids with behavioral issues? The answer remains to be seen.

Lockup teacher Cindy Willis says she views it as a necessary skill for 21st century adults.

“Actually, I believe it’s a really good learning experience because now most junior colleges, colleges, anything, and all high schools have to have virtual working experience,” she says.

“A lot of students are working full-time and going to college online so it kind of prepares them for that sort of secondary education atmosphere, so I think it is a good tool.”

Dalla Rosa says the agency keeps no data on long-term educational outcomes for the youth in their care.

The state will soon open for bids to again outsource management of the youth facilities to private providers.

The department plans to keep using Virtual Arkansas in the lockups. It will be up to the department to monitor developments once management of the facilities is again handed over to a for-profit company.

The division says it will be keeping closer tabs on the quality of those services. 

This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.