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Violent, New Orleans jail has young inmates attending high school inside

At a jail with death rates four times the national average in New Orleans, teenagers and young men are trying a new program that enrolls them into full-day high school classes for diplomas, using the same curriculum and tests as the school district. In collaboration with NPR’s This American Life, The Marshall Project’s Eli Hager reported the story and talks to Hari Sreenivasan.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    In a New Orleans jail there is a bold experiment underway. Teenaged young men, criminally charged as adults, are now also enrolled in full-day high school classes that can lead to diplomas and real academic credit. It is the subject of a new report called The Hardest Lesson on Tier 2C from The Marshall Project and public radio's This American Life. Reporter Eli Hager joins us from Seattle for more on his inside look at this attempt to offer young prisoners an education option. Thanks for joining us. So briefly describe — how does the school work inside a jail?

  • ELI HAGER:

    Sure. It's a bit complicated, as you might imagine. There are tiers of the jail where the inmates all live in cells and then there's this one area of the jail that used to be the food warming area and they tore down some walls and built a school there and it really looks like any school. There are interactive whiteboards, the students use Chromebooks, the teachers are teaching algebra and trigonometry and social studies and English, just like any school. They just bring the younger students — both juveniles and 18- to 21-year-olds — into that area every day for a full day of class.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And who's paying for it? Is this the Department of Corrections? Is it the city of New Orleans?

  • ELI HAGER:

    It's the city of New Orleans. So the New Orleans Parish School Board has a contract with a national nonprofit who runs the school. And so it's actually a school that's part of the New Orleans school district.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Is there a bit of a mixed message here? On the one hand, the city or the state decides to try them and convict them as adults. But on the other hand, it's saying, 'you're still a student and you need to go to school.'

  • ELI HAGER:

    That's definitely the experience of the kids themselves. They're facing 40, 50 years in prison — potentially some of them — and you know, they are put on lockdown for 23 hours a day in their cells and get fed their food through a slot. All these things that are telling them that they have no future and no value really as people. But then, they have to go to math class and learn algebra which is this kind of useful skill for a job someday and it's kind of hard to wrap their minds around that. It's kind of like the ultimate code switch.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So how do they measure whether this is working or not?

  • ELI HAGER:

    Well it's not easy to measure, but there are all the usual ways of measuring educational attainment. I mean they take the same standardized tests as every student in Louisiana and over a dozen have now passed the state exams in english and same with math. They've also now given three real high school diplomas to students, and those are things that have never happened before in the New Orleans jail. So those are real concrete measures of success. But also just the level of investment from the kids. A lot of the students told us that it's the best school they've ever been to because they hadn't been to great schools before. They just wish it was a school on the outside, not in jail. So there's definitely investment from the students so far.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    How do the teachers deal with it? I mean, this is not a normal environment to be teaching in.

  • ELI HAGER:

    Yeah it's not at all normal. You know they're teaching in classrooms with no windows. There's kind of a sadness there. But they are able to do some things to get past that hopelessness — that I was talking about before — that students feel. One thing that tends to work is the students' participation in performance can get reported to their judges and that can be a good motivational tool. Some of the teachers like to give the students lots of choices of which work to do or which periods to study because they have no sense of autonomy in jail otherwise — their bedtime and their meals are chosen for them. Those kinds of things tend to work. But other things really don't work in jail. Like discipline really means nothing. The kids would say like, 'What are you going to do, put me in jail?' and building a relationship can be very difficult because these kids could get sent off at any moment to state prison or could be released at any moment.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. Eli Hager of The Marshall Project joining us from Seattle today. Thanks so much.

  • ELI HAGER:

    Thank you.

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