Kids on Probation

Guest post by Carolyn J. Christensen, Teacher, Paxen Learning Corporation

Paxen Classroom
Emerito outside of Carolyn Christensen’s classroom

Kids on probation. Teenagers … and yes, more than likely… they’re boys. Angry, sullen, frightened … pseudo “tough guys,” and according to statistics, 85% of them can’t read or do even the most basic math. Their problems with school started way before they had their first brush with the law, before they came crashing into probation… before they walked into my classroom, at the Paxen Learning Center, Ft, Myers, FL.

Odds are their home life is a struggle, maybe even a nightmare. For too many, food, clothing, and shelter are not a household given, but rather a daily question. By the time these pseudo
“tough guys” take their first little boy steps into a Pre-K class, they are already behind. Statistics show that on average, they have heard thirty million LESS words, than their more fortunate contemporaries – 13,000,000 words to 43,000,000 words isn’t a gap to breach, it’s an abyss.

Emerito was referred to Paxen, from Project Bridge, an Eckerd Kids transition program for youth on probation. From the moment he walked into the classroom, the vibe wasn’t good. He was surly, uncooperative, and insolent at every turn. His behavior was unacceptable in any setting, but disastrous in a learning environment. We have an excellent team at Site 20. Karen Needle is the
Transition Coordinator with Eckerd Kids, and Rene Vanpoelvoorde, from Henkels & McCoy, is our Career Service Coordinator; we all work well together. We decided that the choice to stay or go was up to Emerito. I was clear he would not be in my classroom, with his insolence and poor attitude. Karen made two calls to his Juvenile Probation Officer (J.P.O.), who was terrific with his support. She patiently researched alternatives, and presented those options to Emerito. What I can only assume to be divine intervention, Emerito made a remarkable turnaround − one of the most dramatic I’ve seen. He apologized for his behavior, with heart.

What brought about the change? I wish I could give a definitive answer, but cannot. What do I think it was? Perhaps, that we were firm in our expectations; that we represented a caring, structured environment; that we worked immediately with his J.P.O. to curtail his bad behavior, and that we never slammed the door. What we offered Emerito was the power of his choice. The decision to walk through the door had to be his.

Emerito is a bright young man with significant foundational gaps in his learning. However, I see those gaps closing, by his work, by personal observation, and by testing. He is in class every day, with a smile (most of the time) and an eagerness to learn. Current events have captured his interest, and he is never shy about expressing his take on the state of the world. He is a daily reminder of why I teach. Project Bridge is an amazing opportunity for Emerito. He is getting the kind of one on one attention that can make a difference in his life.

Like so many, Emerito needs positive male role models, and Renee Vanpoelvoorde, from Henkels & McCoy, and Emerito’s mentor, John Bontley help fill that difficult void. Is every day perfect? Of course not. It is school… and there are Mondays. Emerito wants to be a choreographer, go to college, and have a family. Project Bridge has given Emerito the best gift of all – the gift of his dreams.