L.A. County literacy initiative reaches juvenile offenders


At 8 a.m., the energy was already rising at a gathering in the affluent community of La Verne, nestled beneath the San Gabriel Valley foothills. Nearly 80 boys sang, cheered and chanted as participants shared inspirational readings, gave selected shout-outs and led a visualization to “breathe in love.”

The feel-good assembly was Los Angeles County’s latest initiative to improve the literacy skills of its juvenile offenders — in this case, teenagers convicted of robbery, assault, rape and other crimes who are serving time at Camp Afflerbaugh probation camp.

After years of damning reports and a class-action lawsuit alleging educational neglect of juvenile offenders, the county has launched a wide-ranging effort to remedy failing practices and boost the quality of teaching.


Under new county schools chief Arturo Delgado, the Office of Education and the Probation Department are teaming up to bring the students better instructors, more rigorous academics and a broader array of job opportunities, such as sewing and construction programs.

At Challenger Memorial Youth Center in Lancaster, which was targeted in the 2010 lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, students allegedly received diplomas they couldn’t read. But under a legal settlement that prompted new programs to improve reading, math, student behavior and teacher skills, test scores have begun to increase and discipline problems have sharply declined.

“It was a wasteland for education,” said David Sapp, an ACLU staff attorney. “But things have improved dramatically.”

The county’s latest educational initiative is called Freedom School, a summer literacy program that includes the high-energy morning gathering — known as “Harambee,” which means “Let’s pull together” in Swahili.

The curriculum engages teenagers with books about civil rights featuring Latino and African American protagonists overcoming poverty, abuse and drug addiction. Related activities, such as making collages, drawing comic strips and writing personal essays, lead students to be introspective and explore their relationships.

The program, developed in 1995 by the Children’s Defense Fund, has reached more than 90,000 students nationally and is being used in several Los Angeles neighborhoods. But the test run at two juvenile probation camps in La Verne and Malibu marks California’s first effort to bring it to incarcerated youth — many of whom are struggling with poor educational skills, gang ties, dysfunctional families and substance abuse.

L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who led efforts to bring Freedom School to the area, said the program marked a turn away from what he called the “militarization” of probation camps.


“There was a greater focus on custody than on care,” he said. “What you see here is a return to the original mission of juvenile probation, which is rehabilitation and setting the youngsters on the right path.”

Probation officials agree that change is afoot. Many initially balked at allowing hard-edged rival gang members in a room together. Easing control has challenged officers to revise their traditional mentality, said Alberto Ramirez, a probation director.

“For decades, it was about supervision, containment and control,” Ramirez said. Now, he said, the program is promoting closer relationships between the officers and offenders.

The results startled officials: Suspensions from classes and other disciplinary actions plunged by 93% at Camp Afflerbaugh during the five-week program, which concluded last week. Lemar Ruffin, a probation officer who took the 10-day training in Tennessee and has become one of the program’s biggest fans, said there used to be daily fights — 16 one day — but not one scuffle occurred during the morning Harambee.

“Nobody thought it would work,” Ruffin said, but instead they had “kids from every gang high-fiving each other.”

Although no data is yet available on whether the program boosted the teens’ literacy skills, students said they read more. Some boys reported finishing the first novel in their lives.

David and Marquis, both 16, said the program transformed their behavior and reading habits. They said that before, they would frequently get kicked out of class because they were bored and would make trouble — throwing paper at teachers, breaking pencils, horsing around with other students. (The teenagers are being identified by their first names because of Juvenile Court privacy laws.)

Marquis said he rarely read because doing so would mark him as a “weirdo” among his gang-banging peers, and he refused to read aloud in class, embarrassed by his inability to read fluently.

But during Freedom School, the boys said, fights nearly disappeared because no one wanted to miss Harambee or the special Friday activities — the camp brought in a magic show, drum concert, game truck and an animal presentation with a 12-foot snake and giant tortoise.

And, they said, teachers encouraged their reading with assurances that boost their confidence, fun activities and techniques to remember content, such as visualizing scenes. Since Freedom School, Marquis said he has written 20 poems — including “Be Yourself,” which he recited at a morning gathering.

Students said classroom discussions and activities engaged them more deeply in the assigned reading. In one class, 10 students sat in a circle with a teacher and probation officer as they discussed what they would say to a friend addicted to drugs.

The classroom walls were covered with student essays comparing their families and neighborhoods to those in the books, collages depicting their fears and desires, and posters about such civil rights activists as Andrew Young.

Probation and school officials worry about whether the improvements can be sustained now that Freedom School has ended.But David and Marquis say they learned lessons for life.

“The stuff I learned ... I’m going to pass on to my little brothers and sisters,” Marquis said. “The more you read, the more you attain.”