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On Assignment: Setting high expectations for troubled teens

By Chelsea Clinton
Rock Center Special Correspondent

I admittedly don’t remember my first day at Booker Arts Magnet School or Horace Mann Junior High School (now a middle school) in Little Rock, Ark., despite the many photographs my parents took and still have.  I know though, I will never forget the first time I walked into the New Beginnings Youth Development Center and within it, the Maya Angelou Academy, in Laurel, Md. 

Although not located in the District of Columbia, New Beginnings is where the District sends many of its male juvenile offenders, teenagers between the ages of 14 and 20 who are incarcerated for crimes like armed robbery, auto theft and assault. 

At any point in time, around 60 young men, whom the school refers to as ‘scholars,’ live and go to school within the facility. Some teenagers live behind the high razor-wire fences for a few days, others for a year and a few sometimes even longer if additional weeks or months increase the likelihood that a young man will complete his GED or graduate from high school. 

The brainchild of James Forman, Jr., and David Domenici, the Maya Angelou Academy aims every day to live up to its name, its credo, through setting high expectations for scholars in and out of the classroom. 

Domenici, the son of former New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, served as a school principal for the academy between 2007 and 2011. He now leads the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings at the University of Maryland. Forman, the son of the eponymous author and American civil rights leader, is a clinical professor of law at Yale Law School.

Forman and Domenici first founded a charter school in Washington, D.C., focused on students who had served time in the juvenile system, students who had failed in traditional settings and students with special needs.  Their track record of success working with at-risk students, as measured in test scores, graduation rates, post-secondary education attendance rates and future employment, led District officials to select Domenici and Forman in 2007 to manage a school within the juvenile facility.  Forman and Domenici agreed, provided they could have a meaningful voice in helping determine the culture at New Beginnings, both inside and outside their Maya Angelou Academy classrooms.

Teachers at the academy reward scholars’ scholastic and personal successes with recognition – awards and privileges that are rare in the experiences of most of these teens. 

Staff members also confront scholars’ bad behavior by talking about disappointment, choosing to have kids ‘walk it off’ versus blunt punishment and helping these teenagers take responsibility for their actions.

From the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services officer who patted me down whenever I walked into the facility to the teachers whose classes I watched to the people who work in the cafeteria (and helped feed our whole crew) to the men who taught the juveniles, the would-be men, how to cut hair or understand the responsibilities of being a father--everyone we saw worked hard to ensure every scholar knew he could change the course of his life.

Arguably, no one I met embodied this commitment more than Carl Matthews.  Mr. Matthews plays a myriad of roles at New Beginnings.  A reluctant yet inspirational role model, he teaches scholars how to cut grass at the facility and teaches them the importance of giving back by taking scholars on periodic trips to cut the grass for D.C.’s elderly and indigent.

On our first walk together, Mr. Matthews took us on a tour of a place where the grass sorely needed cutting, the old Oak Hill facility.  The nadir of juvenile education stands as an eerie reminder of ‘the before,’ down the road from where the Maya Angelou Academy stands today, but on the same property.

Mr. Matthews worked at Oak Hill in many capacities, including as a guard.  What he experienced at Oak Hill continues to deeply affect him.  No wonder Oak Hill still stands abandoned, a ghost town, a vacant reminder of a facility that failed and was eventually closed through a class action suit, years of court monitoring, and officials who finally said: enough.

Every single scholar we talked to knew acquaintances or relatives who had served time at Oak Hill. Scholars were thankful they were not there now and grateful to people like Matthews because they knew he meant what he said – he would help them gain skills that could serve as a pathway to a job when on the outside.

I saw fierce hope at Maya Angelou in the eyes of Forman and Domenici, the students we spent time with, the teachers we watched at their smart boards and the principal who choreographed each day seamlessly. 

A few of the adults we met at New Beginnings had themselves been incarcerated and were determined to be the best living testament that people can and do change, even if it’s hard and even if one has to do so without any real role models in their own homes or neighborhoods.

Maya Angelou Academy is sending a clear message that for many young men, thankfully, there can be life, opportunity and yes, a new beginning on the other side of the fence.