Program educates jailed juveniles

CLEVELAND (AP) — Juveniles behind bars are continuing their high school education thanks to a schools program serving young inmates.

The joint effort between the Cleveland school system and the Cuyahoga County jail provides one 90-minute class each day for juveniles awaiting trail on adult criminal charges.

The offenders committed alleged crimes that range from aggravated robbery to murder.

The jail averages about 30 teenage inmates, up from only about six a decade or so ago before changes in state law required adult trials for teens charged with certain serious offenses.

Teacher John Perciak says the students are good-natured and respectful and no different from students he’s taught anywhere.

“The attitudes are great — I couldn’t ask for better,” said Perciak, 62, who became a school teacher nine years ago after a corporate career.

The county has a legal duty to make instruction available, but the classes are also a moral responsibility, said jail chief Ken Kochevar.

“They’re not convicted yet,” he said. “Why not give them the same opportunity as every kid in our community?”

A guard stands by during class to keep the peace, but his services aren’t normally needed. The teens seem to welcome the break from stretches spent in their cells, a day room and the gym.

Student Sheldon Stone, 16, says he hopes to return to East Tech High School, graduate, go to college and study business management.

Stone has been charged with aggravated robbery and felonious assault. He said his grades were good until the 10th grade when he fell in with the wrong crowd and started going late to school and skipping class.

“I like going to school,” Stone said. “I’d rather be learning from a teacher than a computer.”

Many boys in the program remain naive about their current circumstances, believing they are heading home soon to be with their families and play video games, said Elizabeth Koenig, a jail social worker.

A Cleveland school board member who pushed for the classes ignores people who dismiss the program as a waste of money.

“I rarely give up on any child,” said Louise Dempsey, an assistant dean at Cleveland State University’s law school. “These are Cleveland’s children. We’re supposed to educate Cleveland’s children.”

2008, The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

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