What Makes Quality Education Programs? Insights from AYPF’s State Scan of Secured Facilities

Amber Verhoorn, Policy & Research Intern

‘You do the crime; you do the time’— a phrase we often hear to describe how our legal system works. As someone who has always been passionate about child advocacy, I have often wondered what this system means for incarcerated youth; what their rights are, what is provided for them, and how they access education services to continue with education upon release. There is so much focus on punishment and not enough on rehabilitation that it often leads to recidivism. It is easy to forget what the implications of this system might mean for youth, when so many of us are far removed from the realities of the justice system. While studying in DC, I have gained some important insight into these realities.

AYPF is currently working on a project focused on the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and accountability for educating students in juvenile justice facilities, which has given me a new perspective into what high quality educational opportunities can look like inside secured facilities. This project involves interviewing each state about their education programs for students in juvenile justice facilities and how the facilities are held accountable for student growth and success. While researching and interviewing states for this project, I have identified three states that are providing students with innovative programing and supports. These interviews with states have given me new insight into what high quality education programs can look like inside juvenile justice facilities.

Innovative Programming

ESSA requires that all students have access to a well-rounded education and are held to high academic standards that will prepare them for a successful future. However, youth in juvenile justice facilities typically have lower education levels, and one in three incarcerated youth have reading and math skills that are significantly lower than their grade level. For students already academically behind, a lack of proper education while in a facility can result in further education loss, an increased likelihood of dropping out of school, and even recidivism.

A few weeks ago, I met a Death Row survivor who spoke about the lack of education he received while in prison. He was in and out of prison constantly starting at a young age until he was placed on Death Row for the next 19 years. He emphasized that if he had access to a quality education, he would not have spent most of his life there. Educational attainment has been shown to reduce recidivism and improve long-term educational outcomes specifically for young adults. However, his facility did not have a good education program nor help him successfully reenter society. Due to the lack of proper education and support to successfully reenter society, upon his final release he had no access to adult education services and no diploma which ultimately made it hard to secure a job. However, even with the lack of support this man was able to create a path for himself where he currently advocates for quality education in juvenile justice facilities, and seeks to educate students on the importance of education in fighting for societal change.

Virginia does a good job of providing innovative programing to help students in their facilities. The facilities have smaller class sizes that focus on project-based learning in their academic curriculum. They have several educational programs ranging from traditional academics to cooking. If a student is interested in learning something new, they find an online provider so the student can take online classes. This helps students stay engaged and it gives them a well-rounded education. In addition, they have programs for students outside of the classroom where they can participate in helping the community as well as participating in sports.

Transition Supports

I recently participated in a police ride-along and almost all of the calls were for youth or adults who had been arrested before and served time in a juvenile justice facility. Unfortunately, there is a significant number of youth who recidivate back into the justice system because they did not get the proper education or support needed to make a safe transition back into society. Recidivism rates for individuals 24 years or younger are higher than any other age group. In addition to a lack of proper education within juvenile justice facilities, there is often a lack of adequate transition planning for these youth.

West Virginia does a good job working with youth and their families to transition back home. The facility staff will personally go to a student’s home to speak to their family, assist with necessary changes, and share advice for a successful transition. Staff want to ensure the student will have a safe and healthy transition back to their community with the hopes of avoiding recidivism. Therefore, it is pertinent that facility staff make an effort to reduce these numbers and help youth not fall back into the system.

As a response to the increased number of youth incarcerated, Washington State has made attempts to reduce their recidivism rates through the Washington State Education Advocate Program. This program has incorporated the hiring of prevention/intervention specialists that prioritize the youth’s intensive needs. This system works on a case by case basis, and according to the level and intensity of the youth’s needs. Youth that are at a low risk of recidivism or those who have made significant progress, receive minimal services and have contact quarterly with the specialists whereas youth at the higher risk level will receive more intensive management and services. Regardless of the level of risk the youth is at all of the youth will have support, monitoring, and contact to increase their progress. This kind of engagement is important in making sure youth have a smoother transition home.

With 60,000 youth incarcerated at any given day, it is important to have this figure lowered drastically. Innovative programming and supports that help rehabilitate youth are very important to ensure youth have what they need in order to prosper in the long term.


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.