GWEN IFILL: Five years ago, a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas, partnered with a juvenile justice center to help students behind bars finish their high school education with a different kind of hands-on approach: learning classical guitar.
Our Student Reporting Labs special correspondent Kennedy Huff produced this story during her summer internship at local station KLRU Austin PBS.
JEREMY OSBORNE, Teacher: We can make that a bit more dramatic. It’s starting to sound like something again, though, guys.
KENNEDY HUFF: These are reassuring words for a budding classical guitarist.
JEREMY OSBORNE: It’s all the same notes.
KENNEDY HUFF: They have traded their uniforms for sweater vest, Crocs for loafers. For a hour every Tuesday and Thursday, Demetrius, Peter and Israel get to escape their reality.
STUDENT: I used to actually have a real bad anger problem. So when I would like get real angry or whatever, or I would be like sad, I guess you could say, or just like withdrawn, I get my guitar.
KENNEDY HUFF: Austin Classical Guitar began partnering with Gardner Betts’ Juvenile Justice Center five years ago. Residents who take the class earn their fine arts credit to graduate high school and learn better to cope with emotions that may have gotten them into trouble in the past.
STUDENT: It just gives me something to do when I’m either bored or like thinking about doing something that’s not in my best interest.
KENNEDY HUFF: Jeremy Osborne began teaching at Gardner Betts last summer.
JEREMY OSBORNE: When I took over, I knew what to expect, but there was a lot of trepidation, actually. There’s a lock on every door. You have to memorize a handful of codes to get through all the different security blocks and everything.
And it’s really disorienting when kids first start. You know, it takes them a while to warm up to you or just really even trust you at all. And they would test me a whole lot. And on the first day, they’re kind of like — you think about the guitar is such an exciting instrument. And kids are like literally shaking kind of when they’re holding it, because they’re like, I just want to make noise.
And then, by the end of the first class, they’re just like, whoa, I can’t believe we did that. That’s amazing.
KENNEDY HUFF: Students in the program get the privilege of performing at least once a semester. Last May, they got the opportunity to perform here for the court-appointed special advocates of Travis County’s swearing-in ceremony.
JEREMY OSBORNE: We got in the courtroom. They played beautifully, this amazing playing. Like, there was — they got two standing ovations, and they just — they were in their court clothes and looked super professional, and they sounded professional, and they were just completely elated with themselves.
STUDENT: Oh, man. I was scared on that, because I was the only person that played my solo that day. And it was — I was nervous. I was like, man, if I mess up in front of all these people — but I played it. I played it good.
KENNEDY HUFF: The director of health services for the Travis County Probation Department, Erin Foley, sees the long-term impact this program has on residents.
ERIN FOLEY, Travis County Probation Department: But I know that the kids who go through that program, the types of responses and changes that we see in them are noticeable and significant, in that what they do with that program and in their treatment alongside of it absolutely moves in a positive direction. So, we see things like accountability, taking responsibility for their actions.
KENNEDY HUFF: The guitar class also shows residents a future they might not have thought was possible.
STUDENT: I’m 18. I never thought I would see the light. I never thought I would see the day that I would be graduating. But I really like the feeling that everybody in my family graduating high school at least, made it to college at least one year, maybe two, dropped out. Instead of going down the wrong road, I can go down the right one, you know?
KENNEDY HUFF: Prior to joining the program, Peter was a high school dropout. This fall, he will attend San Jacinto College to study music production.
STUDENT: I dropped out in 10th grade. I didn’t go back until I got locked up. I would never have took guitar without being here.
So, my mom is excited. Usually, if she heard something about me, it was always bad. And it feels good to have something good like graduating high school, learning how to play the guitar, going to school. Now it’s just, every time she sees me, she just smiles. I’m sure her cheeks hurt by now.
KENNEDY HUFF: Reporting for PBS NewsHour for the PBS Student Reporting Labs, I’m Kennedy Huff.