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Guest Column: Youth Justice Awareness Month- Educational Opportunities that Allow Youth Voice to be Heard

Posted in 2019 Friday, 04 October 2019

Guest Column: Youth Justice Awareness Month- Educational Opportunities that Allow Youth Voice to be Heard

By Kat Crawford & Christina Campbell, Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings                        

Now I got to make a decision to be the person I want to be
I want this world to believe in me
I also got all these charges on me
I can’t change anyone but me
 (Lyrics written by an incarcerated youth)

Students attending schools in juvenile justice facilities historically have been terribly served (read: low academic expectations, curricula that is not engaging or rigorous, insufficient special education services, etc.).  What makes this especially tragic is that these young people need, and deserve, the best we have to offer.  Providing youth with quality educational services during their incarceration is essential to improving overall life chances and long-term outcomes.  Many students arrive at juvenile and adult facilities being disengaged from school, most often having experienced school failure and pushout.  By re-engaging in their education, students become equipped with new skills, refocused on their futures, and redirected onto a more productive path.

At the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings (CEEAS), we work to improve educational opportunities for system-involved youth, with the goal of empowering them to be free, successful, contributing members of their communities. We recognize our youths’ inherent value and seek to provide them with the support and education they need and deserve to realize their full potential.  We work with juvenile justice agencies and their educational partners to provide technical assistance and facilitate peer sharing focused on improving education inside of facilities.

Since 2012, CEEAS has sponsored a series of initiatives (academic projects and competitions) designed to make learning engaging and relevant to students held in secure facilities. The initiatives have connected teachers, many of whom work in small, isolated detention centers across the country, building a sense of community and fellowship; they have introduced technology into secure facilities; and, perhaps most importantly, they have amplified the voices, words, and creativity of students held in confinement. In the four initiatives we sponsored last year, we reached approximately 6,500 students at over 165 schools.  These initiatives have been interspersed throughout the year, often aligned with cultural and historical benchmarks, including YJAM. 


This Fall, in coordination with YJAM, students in secure schools across America are exploring the issues that surround youth justice for the second year of our song-writing initiative, Unsung. As YJAM encourages people to host action-oriented events in the community, our Unsung initiative encourages youth held in confinement to participate in the dialogue around youth justice as well.  Unsung provides teachers with a curriculum that dives into protest songs, policy issues, and the power of lyrics. Students use music to create songs and generate awareness around policy topics that impact their lives.

We have chosen to work with Soundtrap- a collaborative music-making software that will allow 1,500 of our students to create original pieces of music in an online studio. After writing their lyrics and recording their songs, students can then submit their final recorded song to our national contest. The songs are reviewed by professional musicians (Aloe Blacc will be a returning finalist reviewer this year!) and the winning selections featured as a part of #YJAM2019.

It’s opportunities like these--ones that give incarcerated youth a chance to experiment with new technology, explore their creativity, and learn about history and real-life situations that impact them-- that provide for a meaningful educational experience.  An experience where they can be empowered to share their opinions and beliefs and get their voice heard, all the while learning in the process.

If you’re interested in supporting Unsung, we’re always looking for volunteers to review the first round of songs between October 11-16 (click HERE to sign up). Reviewers receive five songs and a rubric to give feedback, and can even provide written feedback that will be shared with the students.

Our Unsung Winners will be announced on October 24, 2019. You can follow @SecondChanceEDU to be the first to hear this year’s winners, and you can help make our students' songs heard by spreading the word! Click here to follow CEEAS on Twitter where the winners will be announced.

Every year we look forward to seeing what the students create and they never cease to amaze us with their talents.  We look forward to a time when all young people held in confinement receive the educational supports they need and deserve to reach their potential.  Until then, we’ll keep pushing for improvements and doing our part to open up meaningful and relevant learning opportunities.

We kicked off this year’s Unsung with a mini lyric contest. Here are a few we wanted to share with you:

When you look at me don’t judge a book by its cover
These judges and DA’s don’t know how much I suffer
Justice is corrupt, and that ain’t even just for me
Everybody got a situation, we just want to be free.
All this gun violence swear it’s getting contagious
Trayvon got kilt for wearin a hoody that’s outrageous