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Juvenile detention teachers work to change lives

  • Article by: PATRICK B. ANDERSON
  • Associated Press
  • February 1, 2014 - 12:05 AM

LA CROSSE, Wis. — Passion is a must when it comes to working with students who can reduce a teacher to tears.

Kathy Berger and Tammy McRoberts have shed plenty. As teachers at a juvenile detention center, they educate children who are suicidal, homeless or addicted to drugs.

Kids who "don't have anybody riding shotgun," Berger said.

"People want to throw them away and forget about them," McRoberts said.

Berger and McRoberts are part of a team of four educators who work in La Crosse County's juvenile detention center. They're the only two teachers who work full-time in La Crosse County's Health and Human Services building, in the secure detention area and the adjacent non-secure teen center, which caters to foster children and children undergoing substance abuse treatment, the La Crosse Tribune (http://bit.ly/1e4wwu6 ) reported.

Both understand their duties are different from those of a teacher at a typical school, said Regina Siegel, the La Crosse district's director of pupil services.

"They have a gift of assessing the child academically and emotionally," Siegel said, "and giving them exactly what they need at that time."

Breaking down barriers means building trust, and it's an essential part of a job, forcing a teacher to take on the roles of counselor and even parent, Berger and McRoberts say.

All teachers should have a knack for establishing relationships with students, McRoberts said.

"In this situation, it's just intensified," she said.

Berger and McRoberts lead classrooms with a hodgepodge of students from different schools and different grade levels.

"It's very transitional," Siegel said. "They find a way to teach multiple subjects a day to multiple students a day."

The La Crosse district is responsible for staffing the centers, but 62 percent of the kids don't live within district boundaries. McRoberts said she has had students from Honduras and Mexico. Immigrant children who are in the country illegally stay at the center before deportation.

Children in secure detention may have committed a crime, but the Western Region Adolescent Center next door serves youth in the county's foster care system.

"They could be here through no fault of their own," Berger said.

Many have learning disabilities or mental health problems, McRoberts said.

"There's a lot of kids that really look at Kathy and I as two of the most consistent adults in their life," McRoberts said.

They may have different life experiences than their peers at the neighborhood school, but they have the same educational needs, Berger said.

"They're kids just like kids in every other building in the district," Berger said. "They want to do their best."

McRoberts and Berger do what they always do. They teach what they can with limited resources and limited time.

Their goal is always the same. They want to make an impact. They want to see children leave and never return.

It's a tall order. Studies by the Department of Corrections show Wisconsin youth who were released from a correctional facility in 2008 had a three-year recidivism rate of about 58 percent. Boys were far more likely to return than girls, with recidivism rates of about 63 percent and 24 percent, respectively, according to the department.

Seeing a student repeatedly falter in life can haunt a teacher trying to make a difference, McRoberts said. The trick is accepting the fact that there's never a perfect fix.

She and Berger have learned to hold their pupils more accountable, to not take a student's struggles personally.

"You're heart bleeds for them," Berger said. "You can't even imagine."

Berger and McRoberts were picked in November as Educators of the Year by the Wisconsin Juvenile Detention Educators Association.

The statewide association holds yearly conventions, and Berger and McRoberts make a point to attend. The award means a lot because it comes from "colleagues who understand how tough it is," McRoberts said.

"We're both, I think, very humbled," Berger said.

McRoberts teaches English and history. Berger teaches math and science. They switch between secure detention and the non-secure teen center every hour. It's a division of labor that formed over 16 years of working together.

They're driven by the same passion. They finish each other's sentences. They share the same concerns for students, and the same frustrations.

"Not all the kids who are up here are kids who have done something wrong," McRoberts said. "Some of them are just victims of the circumstances of their lives."

An AP Member Exchange Feature shared by La Crosse Tribune

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