New charter schools take on thorny challenge of educating troubled youth (Capitol Updates)

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol. You can sign upĀ on his website to receive theĀ Capitol Updates newsletter by email.

Photo by Emory Maiden / CC BY NC 2.0
Photo by Emory Maiden / CC BY NC 2.0

For many years kids in our juvenile institutions have received their schooling from the school district in which the institution is located. The districts continued to receive the state allocation of funding for the students and signed a contract with the institutions to provide teachers and other educational necessities to provide the kids with an education. I’m not expert enough to know how well this has worked. But recently the Office of Juvenile Affairs (OJA) sought and got legislation that allowed it to create its own charter school for kids incarcerated at the two juvenile institutions for delinquents and juvenile offenders. The schools have just begun their new operation. The idea looks promising.

The OJA charter schools are a reminder of the constant challenge involved in providing education to young people who are at risk or have special needs. Our schools seem to work well for kids who are well adjusted (whatever that means for children and adolescents), capable and who come to school ready to learn and wanting to succeed. They’re going to do all right. For some of our public schools this population seems to be fewer and fewer. Kids with conditions like ADHD, learning disabilities, and turmoil in their lives caused by a familiar litany of problems are the ones who get left behind.

It seems we want to test our way out of these intractable situations without dealing with the underlying problem. When we read the test scores for our schools we imagine the classrooms are filled with bright, capable kids anxious to learn and suffering from no barriers. If the scores aren’t as good as they should be, we blame “public education.” The truth is that many of the kids in some of our public schools simply will not get up to the starting line for a good education without first getting some attention for their underlying disabling conditions. In places where the education system does better, the services kids need to get ready to learn are made available. Prevention, diagnosis, treatment, counseling and case management services are provided to the kids who need them. Think what it could do for our schools if these kinds of services were readily available to students when needed as they are in some places.

The OJA charter schools have their work cut out for them. They are dealing with young people with a pattern of failure at school, at home and in society. But to do the work they are doing they have to believe it’s never too late. With the right kind of faculty and the right kind of treatment programs many of these kids can have a chance to turn things around. Hopefully OJA will continue to have the resources it needs to make that opportunity available. It could be those kids’ last best chance.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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