Improving Educational Outcomes for Oregon’s Incarcerated Youth


October 20, 2016


Through REL Northwest and the Oregon Leadership Network’s research alliance, Brandi Holten and Sarah Frazelle are conducting a literature review about what happens to incarcerated youth in Multnomah County, Oregon, and the supports they need to keep their education on track.

It’s easy to say that when young people enter the juvenile justice system, it negatively affects their education. However, to get a real sense of what happens to these youth—and to begin conversations about how to improve their educational outcomes—it takes a deeper understanding of how communication and collaboration should connect the juvenile justice system and schools.

To help identify appropriate educational programs for incarcerated youth and build awareness among school and district leaders on how to best support their students who enter and exit the justice system, we are working with the Donald E. Long (DEL) Juvenile Detention Center in Portland, which is one of the Juvenile Detention Education Program (JDEP) facilities in Oregon. The primary purpose of JDEP is to house youth who have been recently detained or are awaiting trial, and the average stay is five to 11 days.

Through our research and communication with DEL, we have identified the following barriers for incarcerated youth.

  • Incarcerated youth are being dropped from school district enrollment. As soon as youth enter the Oregon juvenile justice system, they are dropped as students from their school district, and the responsibility for their education falls on the detention facility.
  • However, juvenile detention center staff often experience difficulty in receiving student records to properly educate incarcerated youth. School districts have up to 10 days to transfer students’ school records, which often exceeds the time students are held in a JDEP facility.
  • Upon release from JDEP, formerly incarcerated students frequently experience difficulty re-enrolling at their school. They are frequently suggested for placement into alternative schools or GED programs, where they may not always be the most successful.
  • High school credits received while in JDEP typically do not count toward a degree. Most JDEP programs in Oregon are not accredited. Therefore, the academic instruction that students receive while they are detained typically does not transfer to the school they attend after they are released.

Barriers such as these may lead to the higher dropout rate of students who pass through a short-term JDEP facility compared with their peers in long-term detention.

Although JDEP students are in the program for only a short time, the DEL school program and school districts can still work together to help these students stay on track to earn a high school diploma. After reviewing the research, we identified some recommendations regarding academic and transition supports for incarcerated youth.

Academic supports

We encourage JDEP teachers to work with home district teachers to coordinate students’ academic skill building while monitoring their strengths and challenges. This can happen through online tools, such as Let’s Go Learn, Renaissance Learning, and Scholastic Achievement. DEL educators can also focus on life skills and topics (such as how to write a resume and apply for jobs, career and technical education and social and emotional learning), which will help students persevere and succeed when they return to school. Although DEL is not accredited, students could also enroll in online credit-recovery courses, which they could continue once they are released.

Transition supports

We also recommend a high level of collaboration between DEL and home districts to support students’ transitions into and out of the juvenile justice system. In addition, secure and rapid data sharing can help both parties provide consistent supports to these vulnerable youth. We suggest DEL and home districts create systems to share student data related not only to academics but also mental health, special education, and English learner needs. These systems can guide assigned transition specialists or mentors in continuing to support students during the often-difficult transition from DEL back to school.

When youth who have been incarcerated continue their education, they open up college and career opportunities for themselves—and they are less likely to re-enter the justice system. To support success for these students, DEL and home districts must focus on collaboration and communication related to removing the barriers that contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.

What are your thoughts and experiences related to keeping incarcerated youth on track to reach their educational goals?

To learn more, please read a related post by Jacob Williams, “What to Look for to Help Youth Stay Out of the Juvenile Justice System.”