Cape juvenile center keeping students engaged in learning

Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Juvenile offenders listen to Travis Burger talk about his work as landscaping supervisor for the Broadway streetscape project Thursday. His wife, Kim Burger, left, is a teacher in the youth enrichment program at the Juvenile Assessment Center which is run by the 32nd Judicial Circuit. (Fred Lynch)

Editor's note: This is the latest in an occasional series dealing with graduation rates.

Keep them in school as much as possible.

That's a key move that local juvenile authorities are finding stops teens from dropping out of school.

"Once they are suspended, and spend time out of school, they are probably just going to drop out altogether. I have seen it too many times," said Randy Rhodes, chief officer of Missouri's 32nd Judicial Circuit Juvenile Assessment Center.

So keep them there they will -- during the summer, and during the school year when they are suspended. Time away from class and homework can't help students get back on track, only hurt them, juvenile authorities and school district officials say, which is why they are placing high hopes that the newer strategy of more educational time will bring about such effects as lowering the number of crimes tied to repeat juvenile offenders and improving the Cape Girardeau School District graduation rate.

Local teens who get in trouble with the law today are more likely to be seen touring city hall, a museum or a state park for a learning experience rather than sitting in a rehabilitation center or cell -- that is, as long they don't pose a risk to public safety.

Likewise, 170 Cape Girardeau public school students suspended and sent to the juvenile assessment center were doing the opposite of sitting at home or running the streets unsupervised. They were in class with a teacher looking over their shoulder, making sure they were keeping up with assignments.

The scenarios in which juvenile offenders or suspended students now find themselves have evolved since October's elimination of the Cape Girardeau Juvenile Detention Center due to state budget cuts and the creation of the Cape Girardeau Juvenile Assessment Center in its place. Last year, Rhodes said, the court wasn't sure what would become of the center or take place there. But a zero state budget allocation hasn't stopped troubled kids from coming in, nor has it stopped local juvenile authorities determined to keep working with them in the center, on Merriwether Street in Cape Girardeau.

Programs that began at the detention center have mostly carried over, with some additions and changes, and can be seen in action this summer and during the school year. The assessment center, with financial support from Cape Girardeau County, is now hosting a youth enrichment program that will likely serve around 30 juvenile offenders by the end of its 10-week run.

Center administrator James Johnson said the half-day program has proved beneficial so far for participants, who are offenders scoring "below detention range" on an assessment. Small groups are taken on trips throughout the area to learn about careers, as well as learn skills they will need as adults.

The reason, Johnson said, "most of them don't really know what it looks like to work. It's just not in their background."

In the mornings, the participants spend an hour in the classroom with a teacher, who asks them to come up with questions for people they meet during that day's trip. Trips this summer have included visits to the Broadway street construction project, Cape Girardeau City Hall, a fire station, a water treatment plant, Trail of Tears State Park and the Bollinger County Museum of Natural History. The program is an attempt to help participants connect what they learn in school to what they could do later in life. At each stop, participants talked to employees about what their job entails, how they became employed and their educational background.

"The whole objective of it is to encourage them to go to school not just because they have to be there," said juvenile officer Jim Beasley, who is supervising participants with offenses ranging from shoplifting and burglary to fighting in school and truancy. "It seems like if we get them to get that they need to do certain things, then they actually start wanting to. It's the just not knowing where to start, I think, that throws them off."

One of the summer program's two instructors, Kim Burger, who teaches eighth grade in the Kelso School District during the regular school year, said working with the participants is a "real wake-up call" to how much general knowledge of their communities and life skills most of the teens lack, although she said it is really no fault of their own.

"I guess I've been naive not to know how it is for some of these kids in Cape," she said. "There are definitely haves and have-nots, and all that most of them really need is to be pointed in the right direction and engaged."

A 15-year-old participant said he sees the point of the program and that he likes hearing about the different jobs.

"What they are doing does show you kind of what's out there." he said. "I mean, doing this is better than doing some other stuff that's just going to get in the way of what you want to do later."

Juvenile offenders aren't forced into the summer program, Johnson said, but they are encouraged to participate.

"Most of them do show up day after day," he said. "And we do have them telling us all the time that they learned things, which is what we are going for."

eragan@semissourian.com

388-3627

Pertinent address:

325 Merriwether St., Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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