GREAT FALLS, Mont. — It was a proud day at the Cascade County Juvenile Detention Center as two more students joined its growing list of graduates to earn their high school diploma.

From the crowd that came together to celebrate the graduates’ accomplishments, a 17-year-old boy watched from the back of the room.

After overcoming years of homelessness that landed him in the JDC, the boy is now working through his first semester at Great Falls College MSU as a full-time student. He is studying computer science and hopes to work in cybersecurity after he finishes his computer programming courses.

His identity is anonymous for safety reasons.

This college student stands as a success story for other youth in the JDC to look to as they work toward their own goals.

“I had to develop a different mindset,” he said. “I had to look at the future and look at myself. I changed my perspective, and that helped me develop motivation.”

The JDC houses 10- to 17-year-olds and collaborates with Great Falls Public Schools and its Adult Education program to help these students achieve their goals. In 2017, 152 HiSet (high school equivalency tests) were administered at the JDC. Of those, 132 passed.

“We really instill in them that education is something that can’t be taken away,” Shanna Bulik-Chism, administrator for the JDC, said. “Our philosophy is, they lost their freedom coming here, and many of them don’t have any family. But the one thing they can control for themselves is their education.”

GFPS teacher April Senger and Cascade County teacher Adam Jerome came to the JDC just over a year and a half ago and began working with students to help them find success. In the 16 years prior to their arrival, the JDC had four youths receive their high school diploma. In late January, that number reached 22.

Of those graduates, only one has reoffended.

“In most situations, we sit down and what makes education meaningful for them,” Senger said. “We’ve seen significant changes. These kids, they see the value and what’s next. They’re not getting a piece of paper, they’re opening opportunities for apprenticeship programs and careers — not just jobs.”

Senger and Jerome’s dedication to their students has made all the difference. One of the recent graduates said he was grateful for their support and all of the help they offered him along the way.

When he finally received his HiSet scores and realized he passed, he was in shock — not because he didn’t think he was capable, but because he couldn’t fathom actually getting it done.

His identity is also anonymous for safety reasons.

“I was anxious,” he said. “I didn’t think I would be able to do it. I didn’t think I could accomplish it. I’ve accomplished something I never thought I could. But I did pretty good. I’m pretty happy. When I found out I passed, I was super happy and wanted to call my mom.”

He hopes to go on and join the job corps or go to trade school and eventually work in construction or as a miner.

Throughout the ceremony, his younger brother waited to run up and give him a hug. After he received his diploma and his tassel was flipped, his brother clung to his leg as his family and teachers congratulated him.

“When we tell them, they’re smart, that’s the first time some of them have ever heard that,” Bulik-Chism said. “They’re often told they’re not going to make it, they’re worthless. We don’t use words like that here. We say, ‘You can do this, and if you fail, we’ll do it again.’ When people think of a juvenile detention center, they think of bad kids. These kids just need rules and boundaries and someone to believe in them. That’s the recipe for change.”

Graduates from the JDC have the opportunity to move on to work with GFPS’ Adult Education program at Great Falls College MSU to continue their education. Tammie Hickey, adult education coordinator, said it’s a strong partnership that helps these students take their next steps.

The program serves about 500 students a year, 40 percent of whom have already earned their high school diplomas.

As Senger, Jerome and their partners in the JDC, GFPS and at Great Falls College MSU work with youths and rehabilitate them for their lives outside the JDC walls, they are lessening potential burdens on the community as well as helping individuals turn around their lives.

It costs the state approximately $32,000 a year to house an adult inmate in Montana prisons and approximately $1.8 million over the course of the inmate’s lifetime. At the JDC, it costs $235 a day for each youth, amounting to $85,775 a year.

“These students are here for a reason,” Senger said. “A lot of them have significant challenges at home or in the outside community. For us, it’s about removing those barriers for them and then building trust in adults because a lot of them haven’t had good experiences with adults in education. We give them the confidence to believe in themselves. Sometimes it’s hard, but it’s worth it.”


Information from: Great Falls Tribune, http://www.greatfallstribune.com