By: Ben Brown
Jenks High School’s beliefs statement says that “We create a safe and engaging learning environment and invest in every Trojan every day.” Despite this being a pillar of Jenk’s education beliefs, there is a large group of people who go weeks without attention and investment, students in and out of school and in-house suspension.
“I don’t love that we expect students to be on campus, yet we take them out of classrooms,” says AP Lang teacher, Mrs. Workun.
The students in in-house aren’t invested in and don’t have a productive learning environment. Preston Webber, 12, tells me how all there is to do is sit for hours on end sitting at bare walls.
“They kind of just put me in a room. I didn’t really learn anything,” says Webber. “It was just kind of like putting me in time out. It was more so like ‘I can’t deal with you right now so you’re going into this room.’”
Being in-house also makes it difficult for students to get their work from their teachers. Both Webber and Mrs. Workun told me that teachers will often forget about their students in in-house, since they don’t see them everyday.
“For Language Arts, (my teacher) would send work every two weeks, and I wouldn’t know any of it because she wouldn’t explain any of it,” says Webber. “She would tell me to go on to canvas to look at all the stuff they were doing, but I still couldn’t understand it.”
After working with incarcerated women through the program, Poetic Justice, Mrs. Workun began to find parallels between prison and in-house programs. Workun thought about ways she could apply the principles of poetic justice to the in-house system. Ideas for reform largely center around Adverse Childhood Experiences scores, or ACE scores. Out of a list of ACE’s such as physical or sexual abuse, if a person has 3 or more ACE’s they are more likely to experience things such as addiction or incarceration in later life.
“I think if we could just become a trauma informed school, apply what we know about ACE’s, that when a kid acts out or skips school or whatever, if we talk to them and learn that they are experiencing any of those adverse childhood experiences and have never been given the opportunity to process it or to cope with it or to receive any of the help that they need,” says Workun. “I think that we could see some tremendous changes in our policies, and in our overall school culture.”
Mrs. Workun’s ideas for making in-house a better place for students are very similar to what they do in Poetic Justice. Workun would offer students a chance to leave the in-house room and go to her room and practice meditation, reflective writing, and journaling. The writing would focus on prompts that discuss self love and acceptance.
“I think if we gave those students a chance to reflect and to write, and we didn’t stigmatize them as ‘they’re the bad kids’… it would go a long way to changing our school culture, and to hopefully instilling a sense of hope and belonging in those students,” says Workun.
Mrs. Workun believes that the implication of being in in-house, in it of itself, holds students back and causes a feeling of hopelessness.
“There may be adults in their lives, or the powers that be here at school, that are telling them they’re a nuisance,” says Workun. “I think if you hear that repeatedly you start to believe that. If you can create a new narrative for yourself that you can lean on when you’re told you’re a nuisance, that transformation can start to happen.”
The past two years Preston Webber has had a much better experience with the teachers and staff at the Alternative Center and said that the relationship between students and teachers is the most important part of how the school functions.
“All the teachers are really lenient and understand. They all understand you to a dot basically,” says Webber. “They all would just talk to you in a friendly nice way, not like, ‘I’m your teacher do this work.’”
In-house is an age old system that has been a staple of the disciplinary process for years. Rethinking the system and pushing ourselves to be better may be uncomfortable and difficult, but if there’s anything we can learn from Mrs. Workun and Preston Webber, everyone benefits from communication.
“Just be nice to the students,” says Webber. “Ask them how their day was. Just getting to know them. Even though you’re just gonna see them for one year, or the day, or an hour. It’s always nice to talk to someone that you can relate to. It’s just human nature.”