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Graduation not incarceration

Organization set to keep kids in school

Luvenia Jackson

Luvenia Jackson

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Steve Teske talks about the success of Clayton County Juvenile Court programs. (Staff Photo: Kathy Jefcoats)

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Sheryl Teske shows diagram of all the components in creating successful students. (Staff Photo: Kathy Jefcoats)

JONESBORO — Not many officials will disagree that Clayton County’s landscape changed after the 1996 Olympics.

The City of Atlanta closed Techwood and Clark Howell Homes, public housing developments, to make way for the world games, displacing hundreds of low-income residents.

Many of those families relocated south to Clayton County, bringing with them poverty, crime and a lack of connection to their adopted community.

They also brought the need for resources that, while commonplace in Atlanta for decades, were lacking in Clayton County, a bedroom community of middle-class families that had little demand for reliance on government assistance to survive.

Nearly 20 years later, the county is struggling to recover from the influx. Clayton County Schools Superintendent Luvenia Jackson is a veteran educator who experienced the changes firsthand.

“The county grew too fast too soon,” she said. “The growth was so rapid, we’re still trying to catch up. Things changed in 1996, we experienced shifting demographics that needed services that were not readily available.”

But it’s one thing for adults to scrape by on little to nothing and quite another for children who are dependent on them for their very survival.

“Schools can’t supply all that,” said Jackson. “We were moving but going nowhere.”

Juvenile Court, too, has had to deal with an increase in youthful offenders. Steven Teske is chief judge for Clayton County Juvenile Court. His efforts and the work of agencies tangential to youth services have garnered national attention.

He took the bench in 1999 and saw how those teenagers transplanted in 1996 were treated by law enforcement agencies. The problem was not necessarily that they were criminals but that they grew up in an environment different from teenagers police were accustomed to dealing with in Clayton County.

“They almost saw them as a virus and just arrested them,” said Teske. “These kids were poor and from subsidized housing. The culture there is different. Kids were coming to court because they were hanging out near subdivisions. Just hanging out.”

Teske said that was the custom in public housing — for kids to loiter near their buildings and talk, mostly because there was little else for them to do.

“They didn’t have the intention of breaking into homes but they were used to hanging out near Building A in the housing projects,” he said. “Instead of treating the behavior, they just arrested them all, to get rid of them. There is a better way.”

Teske serves on state committees that are working to improve ways to handle juvenile crimes so that the outcome is positive for the offender and society. Programs implemented in Clayton are modeled in other places with the results being alternatives to youthful incarceration and changes in the way teenagers think about their futures.

Poverty impacts learning

Poverty plays a big role in a child’s success or failure, said Teske. Clayton County Public Schools has the dubious distinction of having 100 percent of its 52,000 students eligible for free lunches.

“We are one of the poorest counties in the metro area,” he said. “With poverty comes a lot of serious challenges.”

Jackson is not content to let that be a justification to do nothing.

“That’s not an excuse for not doing something,” she said. “It just means we are meeting the challenges differently. All the agencies must come together. It’s a great challenge.”

Another area of concern is healthcare and ensuring that all students are vaccinated, for example.

“It’s not the legal responsibility of the school system to provide that but we’ve had to work with the Clayton County Board of Health to get things done to be in compliance,” said Jackson.

Dr. Alpha Fowler Bryan is health director for Clayton BOH and is chairwoman of the board of directors for Clayton County's System of Care, a partnership that includes agencies, service providers and volunteers. She said such community partnerships aren’t new in many respects and healthcare plays a role.

“Health is much broader than how one presents physically,” she said. “We know in our society, those who have access to insurance and jobs have economic strength.”

In 2013, Clayton County’s high school graduation rate of 55.8 percent was below the state’s average of 71.5 percent. Keeping kids in schools has become paramount in the county.

“I am not pleased with the numbers,” Jackson said. “Look at the research and what’s needed to succeed. You have to start earlier and that’s what we’re looking at, even in pre-K or kindergarten. We’re looking at the root causes of low graduation rates and considering all the factors.”

Bryan said studies show a correlation between literacy and criminal behavior.

“By the third grade, if a student is not literate, there is a three to five times greater likelihood they will have an encounter with the justice system, either with Department of Juvenile Justice or jail,” she said.

Furthermore, research has shown children growing up in poverty are more likely to be illiterate — minority students even more so.

“Kids of color are 30,000 words behind other kids,” said Bryan.

She said she is pleased to be associated with System of Care because of the positive impact it has had on Clayton County students.

“A high school diploma is so very important,” Bryan said. “An education is so important. It just doesn’t get any better than that — we’re working together to get these kids graduated.”

Jackson looks at education in another way.

“A child has four years of non-literacy before kindergarten,” she said. “We have one year of kindergarten to prepare them for first grade.”

To better prepare preschool age children living in poverty, the health department’s need-based Women, Infant and Children program provides books to its clients.

“Everyone is not going to get it right,” said Bryan. “But where there’s failure, we can make sure to get them back on track.”

Black males are at a higher risk, say officials

Another partner is Jevon Gibson, founder and CEO of Center for Adolescent Male Development in Atlanta, a project that helps young black males overcome obstacles such as racism and poverty to become successful members of society. CAMD is funded through U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Gibson serves as community outreach director for System of Care.

“We consider the child as a lump of clay to be molded and developed,” he said. “There are multiple hands touching, not just one hand molding that child. We have to work succinctly together.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2010, black males were incarcerated nearly seven times more often than white males.

“Why do they make it so hard for African-American males to succeed?” said Gibson. “We have a social obligation to help the least of these. There is power in sitting together and talking about what the county can do for these children. It’s so simple in my head. It will change because it must. How profound is that?”

Sheryl Teske is administrator of System of Care. She wrote the grant that brought $275,000 to fund it through Clayton County Public Schools. System of Care is an organization independent of Juvenile Court with a 17-member board of directors.

She is married to Steve Teske.

“We are poised to do incredible things,” she said. “We’re putting assets in place so kids will have a more proactive focus in their lives.”

Deborah Stone works for Sheryl Teske and is proud of the strides made toward the care and nurturing of students in the county.

“Clayton County needs to lift its head up and take pride,” she said. “This model will do that. The opportunities are out there and eventually, all parents will say they want their kids in System of Care.”

Sheryl Teske was responsible for getting nearly $500,000 in a grant awarded to Clayton County Juvenile Court May 20, 2013, from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

It does take a village

“It takes a village” isn’t just a Clintonesque, liberal Democrat philosophy. Raising healthy, successful children is the responsibility of anyone who can contribute to that success, said Steve Teske.

Not every youthful offender should be locked up — most can be rehabilitated given the right treatment — and each should get the chance to finish high school and become productive members of society.

“Clayton County needs economic growth,” he said. “We can’t have that if we don’t have taxpaying citizens. We can’t have taxpaying citizens if we maintain a pipeline to prison. These are young people who make poor, stupid decisions. Do we have these decisions define the rest of their lives? The answer is no.”