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LA County's Challenger youth probation camp overcomes troubled past, but faces uncertain future

Tucked behind a state prison in the dusty high desert of Lancaster, the Challenger Memorial Youth Center is Los Angeles County’s largest probation facility. Each of its six camps is named after an astronaut who died in the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster; the school, Christa McAuliffe High, takes its name from the teacher who was onboard.

The sprawling grounds are austere, with squat buildings and few trees to block the harsh sunlight. Probation officers sit by brightly colored doors listening to the rumble of classes in session. Some students are hunched down behind flat-screen computers zipping through English courses; others work with high-tech building gear in goggles, while another group reads aloud about food safety, animatedly responding to questions from their teacher.

To truly appreciate this picture, you need to know what Challenger was like before — even just a year ago, when L.A. County officials settled a major class-action federal lawsuit that had made the camp's name synonymous with failure.

That failure, at one of the nation’s largest complexes for housing and educating juvenile offenders, was summed up in a class action lawsuit. The suit detailed allegations of officials systematically denying young people their fundamental right to an education by graduating a student who could not read his own diploma, locking students in solitary confinement (sometimes for months) and haphazardly kicking students out of class.

But a 2011 settlement agreement gave county officials a legal mandate to change. The agreement requires monitoring and quarterly reports by a team of experts over four years who check on 13 areas of reform, including literacy, instruction and special education. A monitor is at the site several times a month, sometimes weekly.

“There’s a lot of pressure on everybody,” said school principal Marsha Watkins. “We live in a fishbowl pretty much. But the real bottom line is it comes down to kids. ...We weren’t doing what we needed to do for kids, and now we are.”

Yet even as Challenger emerges as a possible model for teaching incarcerated kids, budget worries may endanger these reform efforts. Cuts to state funding have already forced a round of layoffs since the settlement, and such new and innovative programs —as well as the training for them — require more resources. There is a fear that, though support and focus is here now, that won't remain the case in the future.

Challenger is home to about 240 teenage boys spread through three camps. Up to 40 percent of the youths are special education students, while 40 percent are English-language learners. Roughly 65 percent are Latino and 25 percent are African-American. With its 24-hour medical access, the maximum-security facility is where many boys with mental disorders are assigned.

“They’ve committed numerous crimes, everything from drive-by shootings to petty theft, to drugs — you name it, we have it all,” said Steve Gores, a special assistant with the probation department who's been at Challenger since Nov. 2010.

Over the last year, the camp has changed from a place where books were banned in dorms to one where there is a library and daily silent reading sessions after lunch. A slew of vocational programs have sprung up, including a building skills construction trade course, a ServeSafe food handling class and a landscaping program.

Students are also involved in after-school programs such as bicycle repair and dog grooming. The county has introduced a new reading comprehension program and an educational credit-recovery course.

“The kids are beginning to see that somebody really cares about their environment, and they’re taking better care of it themselves,” said L.A. County Office of Education Superintendent Arturo Delgado. “They’re getting turned on to some of the programs we put before them, and when you talk to them, they talk a little different now. ‘Yeah, I really like this program, it was boring before.’ So it’s not boring anymore.”

Practical skills

In a cavernous room, six students dressed in dark brown jumpsuits work intently over broad workbenches under the watchful eye of two probation officers, as well as their teacher, Judy Warner.

The shop rivals any high-tech woodshop outside the camp’s walls — except that the equipment is attached to the tables.

“This is the best,” Warner said. “That’s how it compares. It has all trades, where a lot of the woodshops are woodshop specific. And you can see, the gentleman over there sweating copper pipe for plumbing, the gentleman over there hooking up electric light bulbs — we’re teaching this gentleman here cabinetmaking.”

Watkins quietly pointed out that the two students sharing the blowtorch on the copper tubing are rival gang members. One of those is Dwayne. (Because of court restrictions, only students who were 18 were able to talk to this reporter, and their last names were not disclosed.)

Dwayne, 18, previously a student at Washington Preparatory High School, has been at Challenger for three months, with seven to go. It’s his second time in the camp; his last time was in 2009-2010, he said.

“When I first came, none of these programs was here,” Dwayne said. “It was just stressful, boring. … All the programs, they make your time go by faster now … instead of in the dorms sitting around. Keeps you out of trouble. I like it.”

So far he’s studied electrical work, plumbing and wall framing. Each section takes about 10 days, “but I just read through the book and watched the DVD, and I’m a quick learner, so after I did it, I just learned how to do it, so like two days,” Dwayne said. “When I get out I want to see if I can get a job or go to school for this.”

The building skills program started in March and is part of the career technical education that the camp is required to provide for all students as part of the settlement.

Only some boys are allowed in this program because of the potentially dangerous equipment, but school officials said they are working on creating other programs in high-demand careers such as medicine and technology that would require fewer safety precautions.

At a nearby table, Keimond, 18, expertly measured out pieces of wood, marking them with a pencil. He was working on making a cabinet and had already finished some bookshelves.

“I plan to take it all home,” Keimond said. “The plumbing for sure, there’s a lot of stuff I can use around the home. … I know I can do some plumbing around the house, drywall, anything that can be broke, I can fix it, instead of having my mama call, pay for it.”

Keimond was a student at Compton High School before he got to Challenger. He’s been in a month and a half, and had three months left.

“I want to go to college,” Keimond said. “It really wasn’t a thought until I got here. But I wouldn’t mind taking up construction at L.A. Trade Tech.”

The camp is full of new programs. In one classroom, students sit in a room with rows of new computers, staring at the screens for four-hour blocks at a time. It is the new AdvancePath Academy, the first such credit-recovery program in a lockup environment. In a week and a half after its April launch, students were completing an entire semester English course.

Such programs have their detractors, who question the quality of an online program built for speed. But teacher Shelley Torres said the new course has already resulted in a “dramatic change” in students’ behavior.

“They’re more actively engaged, and I think they feel they’re much more in control of their education or their process,” Torres said. Instead of relying on the teacher to deliver instruction, “they have instruction at their hands.”

Torres has been a county teacher for 10 years and has taught at Christa McAuliffe for the last year. She said the changes have changed the entire atmosphere of the school.

“They had a basketball team here from the camps, and it’s off-season now, so they don’t have that now, but you know, I’ve had students asking me, ‘Are you staying today? Can you stay ‘til 4 p.m. and come watch us play? We’re competing against X camp,’” Torres said. “So you’re hearing that, stuff like that. Whereas before, you wouldn’t hear a student say … 'can you stay and come,' because nothing like that was really happening.”

The changes, including the introduction of a reading comprehension course, have come swiftly with a new program added nearly every month over the past year. The expert reports and court filings have told the tale of a sometimes-rocky road to reform; county officials and observers noted that these are the first tentative steps toward what officials hope will be long-term progress.

“It has the potential, [but] I wouldn’t say it’s a model program yet,” said Peter Leone, a professor of special education at the University of Maryland. Leone is a national expert at delivering education in detention settings and a monitor in this case. He has been involved in monitoring and reform at dozens of facilities for 25 years.

“If it was a wall, we’d say the paint’s still wet,” Leona said.

He said the key piece is sustainability.

“It’s never easy to make a big change, but it’s easier when you’ve got some attention, because then you’ve got the support and you have consensus about what needs to be done,” Leone said.

“It’s harder to maintain that over time if there isn’t sufficient both community support and organizational support. So on LACOE’s side, you have to have a culture that supports the notion that the students who are incarcerated in the probation camps are entitled to high-quality educational services ... because we know that the likelihood of being arrested and re-offending is correlated with their levels of achievement.”

The initial gains were lost last year when the county’s budget problems forced it to send pink slips to teachers at Challenger; the principal also left, and behavior problems rose once again. This year, the school’s 29 teachers barely avoided another round of layoffs after the county put out a robust incentive package to get people to retire early.

“We are very pleased about the changes that we are seeing, but we also remain concerned about sustainability and quality assurance over the long term,” said Laura Faer, lead counsel and education rights director for Public Counsel, which was a party in the lawsuit. “The key to lasting reform in this case is ensuring that the changes are actually systemized. … We don’t want to be back here 10, 15, 20 years from now.”

The reform efforts have been led by Superintendent Delgado, who started last summer, as well as Principal Watkins, who took the helm in January. Together, the two have revitalized the reform.

Delgado said that, during his job interview, a supervisor told him something he always remembers: she didn’t feel that the county’s Office of Education understood its mission.

“One of my goals is to make sure that everybody understands what the mission is,” Delgado said. “The mission is to save these kids, to give them hope, and we do that through education, and we do whatever it takes.”

And though Watkins has agreed to remain principal for one more year, the school will need to find a replacement — a task many worry will not start early enough.

We need “to really grow long, deep roots,” Watkins said. “We really need to institutionalize everything we’ve done. Everything is startup, everything is new, and that’s great, but it needs to have sustainability, it needs to be able to continue, regardless of who’s sitting in this chair.”

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).