Kansas afterschool program creates ‘community of care’ for court-involved kids

Common sense dictates that if kids are involved in afterschool programs, it’s much less likely they’ll get into trouble. But what about kids who are already in trouble? For Steve Willis, director of the state of Kansas 5th Judicial District Community Corrections Agency in Emporia, afterschool is proving to be a great solution for them as well.

Serving 20 juvenile offenders, 17 of whom are under intense supervision by the corrections department, Spartan Explorers afterschool program was introduced at Emporia High School in early 2017. The high-risk teenagers, all between the ages of 14 and 16, who are taking part in the program have been convicted of crimes and, as required by the state’s court system, are the recipients of a variety of services designed to keep them in school and out of further trouble.

Participating in the arts is associated with academic gains, but for Spartan Explorers, the arts are also a pathway for connecting socially.
Photo: Callie Fishburn

“This office could see right away that the kids we worked with were struggling with school and academics,” said Willis, who took over as director of the juvenile division in 2016. “About 85 percent of our highest-risk kids had at least one failing grade, and many were failing multiple required classes, so they don’t even bother to sign up for the electives they needed to graduate.”

Too many court-involved youth lack structure and discipline in their lives, says Willis. In addition to their academic struggles, they tend to come from financially strapped families and lack meaningful connections with their community.

“Too often, they’re recognized as troublemakers, and that keeps them from getting the kind of constructive interactions they need to begin modeling positive behavior,” he said.

Court fines add another burden, said Willis.

“Most people don’t realize that if a kid is convicted, he or she is responsible for paying court fines. And it’s next to impossible for these kids to find jobs. By the time they reach the age of 18, they can owe hundreds of dollars to the state.”

“Our probation kids are knocking it out of the park. They’re working down their fines, adding academic credits and starting to experience a different level of success in the classroom. They’ve started to buy into the program, and that’s helping them begin to appreciate the relevance of education.”

— Britton Hart, Emporia High School

Spartan Explorers is specifically designed to deal with these challenges. In collaboration with Britton Hart, principal of Emporia High School, Willis created an afterschool program that not only provides interactive, hands-on activities that give students an opportunity for success, but also counts as an elective credit for regular participants. For each day a student attends the program, he or she also earns one hour of community service, which is applied towards repayment of court fines. With good attendance, a student can earn up to $300 a semester that can be used to reduce that debt.

Now a member of the Executive Committee of the Kansas Enrichment Network, one of 50 statewide afterschool networks funded by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Willis was introduced to afterschool programs through his wife Rachel, a research project coordinator for the network.

“She connected me with Marcia Dvorak, the network director,” he said. “The more I learned, the more I started to see the connections with juvenile justice. I thought — man, this is exactly what our kids need.”

Afterschool programs support academic success, but also offer a safe space for learning ordinary life skills.
Photo: Callie Fishburn

When Willis first approached Hart about an afterschool program for juvenile offenders, the principal was immediately on board.

“This program is a Tier 2, Tier 3 intervention for us,” Hart said, referring to the district’s multi-tiered instructional model that identifies, supports and serves struggling learners — including those with learning disabilities. Key to the program’s success are “the people you put in front of the kids,” said Hart.

“I knew we had to find the right people to make it work,” he said. “Early on, we realized that having the same counselor meet the kids every day was really important to building their trust. These kids have been disconnected from school and rely on that familiar, mentoring relationship. We couldn’t do this without the time our teachers are willing to put into it.”

Partnerships — including a dual enrollment opportunity with Emporia’s Flint Hills Technical College — have further enriched the program and helped Spartan Explorers see the relevance of staying in school and getting a degree.

Data collection has been critical in making a case for continuing the program and improving its quality, and there are early indicators of positive results, said Willis.

In June, the Emporia Board of Education voted to continue Spartan Explorers through the 2017–2018 school year.

“One of our biggest goals — no new offenses or probation violations among the kids attending the program — is going well. We’re seeing good attendance in the program — especially among our higher-risk kids — and better attendance in classes during the school day. Homework is being done and turned in. Best of all, the kids have a place where they can joke around, have some fun and learn.”

Hart is a bit more direct.

“Our probation kids are knocking it out of the park,” he said. “They’re working down their fines, adding academic credits and starting to experience a different level of success in the classroom. They’ve started to buy into the program, and that’s helping them begin to appreciate the relevance of education.”

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