It was Juron’s second day in the New Orleans jail and he was bewildered. At 17 years old, he had been arrested for the first time and charged as an adult for allegedly taking a woman’s cell phone during an argument and firing a gun into the air, which he denied. His mother couldn’t afford bail, so he would be locked up for months until a trial, sleeping on a hard slab. If he was convicted — a possibility he could barely acknowledge — he faced 15 to 104 years in state prison.
Yet there was a deputy, waking him up on a Monday morning in February, telling him he had to go to school.
“I was like, school? I'm not going to the school,” Juron said later. “I go to school in the world. I'm not about to adjust to no school.”
Being a teen charged as an adult is a lesson in dizzying mixed messages. You’re too young to vote or drink, maybe even to drive, and you’ve been told that kids can grow and change. Yet your own future is set out in the starkest terms: years or decades in prison followed by a lifelong criminal record.
It’s even weirder to hear that you still have to learn trigonometry.
In the U.S., there is adult jail and there is school, and the two rarely go together. Most juvenile detention centers have educational programs, and prisons often have GED or college classes. But since August, the New Orleans jail has offered something unusual: a full-day high school that’s part of the public school system and offers real credits. The only others are in the nation’s largest cities, such as Chicago and New York.
The Orleans Justice Center is as adult as an adult jail gets. It has a death rate four times the national average. Federal monitors have overseen it for half a decade, trying to limit the scope of its violence. Over a period of three months last year, there were about 300 unreported fights, suicide attempts, severe head injuries, and incidents of ingested pills or heroin at the facility, a January status report said. The report called the jail “critically unsafe.”
It doesn’t seem like a place for children, but Leon Cannizzaro Jr., the Orleans Parish district attorney, aggressively prosecutes juveniles as adults rather than steering them into the juvenile justice system.
Under a new state law that kicks in next year, 17-year-olds in Louisiana will not be automatically prosecuted as adults for certain crimes, although they still can be. Until then, there are between a dozen and 50 juveniles at the jail at any given time — and they needed a school.
The Orleans Parish School Board signed a contract last year with the national nonprofit Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings to start the Travis Hill School, named after a local trumpeter who was incarcerated as a teenager. It would educate both juveniles and any 18- to 21-year-olds who were close to getting a high school degree.
The inmate-students would rotate among math, science, social studies, English, art, and, if the school could swing it, a music class taught by the Preservation Hall jazz band. They would take the same standardized tests as every student in Louisiana and could earn a diploma, not just an equivalency degree.
So the experiment began. Could a violent adult jail contain an aspirational school? Every day, its students, all of whom are black, would ask themselves whether they were defined by their classroom or their cell.
The school would have two years to find out.
Travis Hill’s students wear jumpsuits stamped OPSO INMATE, for Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office. Uniformed deputies stand watch in the corner. But its classrooms look like classrooms anywhere. On the walls are student essays on the theme of power, or posters about the distributive property and linear equations. The students work in Chromebooks, and teachers use interactive whiteboards.
The contrast takes plenty of teens by surprise. “A lot of people that’s in here don’t got no GED, don’t have no high school diploma, damn sure didn’t go to college,” said Elliot, 18. “We didn’t know it would be like real school.”
The students at Travis Hill are always trying to absorb these two clashing realities. They are inmates, banned from seeing their families in person, fed through a slot, and sleeping among strangers in Tier 2C, the area reserved for juveniles. But they are also students, which must mean their brains have worth, after all.
Juron isn’t interested in accepting either label. He is the kind of teen who rolls his eyes so dramatically it’s like he’s rolling his whole head.
But he is also known among the Travis Hill teachers for calling his mom nearly every day, sometimes more than once. He looks out his small cell window toward the highway in the morning, he says, imagining freedom.
Juron’s father was murdered in October, and one day in jail, he says, he spotted the man charged with killing him. He said the teachers are trying, but added, “I’m going to face that by using math? Really? It don’t make no sense. School is for outside things, that’s what I feel like.”
That sense of futility flared up one April day in math class.
In a corner, John H. Perry III, the special education teacher, was struggling mightily with Juron. “Let me feel like a teacher,” Perry said. “Put it this way: teaching’s like a stage, like theatrics.”
“Yeah, that’s all it is,” Juron shot back.
To teachers, engaging in school means believing in your life and potential. But to Juron, it's the exact opposite. Participating in school would mean acknowledging he is in jail, which means his life is over.
“It’s something that’s really common that all of the students say: ‘I’m going home tomorrow, I’m going home tomorrow,’” Perry said. Eventually, he says, students get past what he calls the honeymoon phase of jail. But he’s torn. He doesn’t want Juron to admit he is an inmate, even though it might allow him to start participating in class. It would mean the kid who calls home every day had truly lost hope.
Teachers at Travis Hill encourage teens with slogans such as “keep running your race” while “your life is on pause.” With many students, the pitch works. Since the school’s opening, three have earned a diploma; another 13 passed state exams in English, and 14 passed in math — all of it a first for anyone at the New Orleans jail.
But some of the usual tricks of the trade aren’t available. Discipline holds little meaning for people already in jail. Teachers can’t visit families at home, and building a relationship with students isn’t always possible because they could be transferred, sentenced or released at any moment.
Hosanna Burr, the math teacher, tries to offer her students some autonomy and independent study in a place where everything else, from their meals to their bedtime, is decided for them. Even more usefully, the students’ participation and performance can get reported to the judges overseeing their cases.
Still, the daily challenges of a jail school are always reasserting themselves. Half of any class might not show up one day because they’ve been put on lockdown or in solitary confinement. Breakfast is served at 4:30 a.m., leaving the students in need of a tube of peanut butter to keep going. Correctional officers, used to dealing with grown men, can overreact to normal adolescent misbehavior. Many of the kids weren’t going to school before jail, so hunting down their transcripts is daunting. The jail groups inmates by security level, not reading or math level, so students of different academic abilities end up together in one classroom.
And then there are the court cases. The staff gets an update at the beginning of each week detailing which students have an upcoming hearing — they ride back and forth to court on a school bus — and know to expect ill temper and distraction from them.
To ease the students’ confusion, Travis Hill created a staff position that no other school would have: a “transition” director. Every day, Alexie Gaddis walks back and forth between the jail and the courthouse to chat with defense lawyers and prosecutors, trying to suss out the possible outcomes of the students’ cases. Then she comes back and tells them what she’s learned, as bluntly as she can.
The teens call Gaddis “the Jinxer” because she’s always bringing bad news. They even have a song for when she comes around.
“I tell the staff all the time not to get so bent out of shape about the fact that Johnny is not active in classwork or he’s aloof or he’s — you know — because he’s dealing with something that is so major, that is life-changing,” said Kenneth Dorsey, the school’s dean of students.
In March, just a few weeks after Juron’s arrival, the Travis Hill School got the worst kind of news. One of its students, a 17-year-old named Quincy, had been sentenced to 25 years in state prison for a crime he committed when he was 15. He had been one of several teens who fired shots at state troopers in an unmarked car.
It was the longest sentence a student had received in the school’s short history. The news landed hard, piercing the illusion that school was just school and that jail and court were somehow ignorable.
Quincy had been at Travis Hill since the beginning, and was a leader of its student body.
“Everybody knew Quincy,” Juron said. “He was just that person — just the top dude when you come on the tier to talk to, to ‘jos’ with you.” (“Jos with you” is New Orleans slang for joking around.)
Charmisha Baker, the school’s English teacher, who goes by Charm, said Quincy had a charisma that would “methodically bring joy” and make anyone feel like his old friend. Sometimes, despite not always doing his own schoolwork, he’d have her download video clips of his favorite motivational speakers and would get up to preach to the other students about the value of education.
“He was trying to be like, ‘All right, we’re at the school, let me aid in this transition,’” Baker said. “‘We are in jail but we’re not in jail right now. We’re in school.’”
The other students took it personally when Quincy came back from court and revealed his fate. They had been gathered in prayer circles, pleading with God to spare their friend. In one science class, a student walked around groaning and banging his head against the door.
All the while, the teacher was trying to teach a lesson about the properties of living organisms. Living organisms need light and energy, she said. Living organisms need to live within a community. Living organisms respond to stimuli, or messages from their environment. And living organisms have the capacity to grow.
“We ain’t even turn 18 yet,” Juron said. “We have still a lot of growing to do, we got changes we can make. We got chances to take, we got stuff that we ain’t see.”
In the few days that Quincy remained at Travis Hill before he was sent to prison, the staff allowed him to put on his headphones and not do any work. Despite so often denying versions of this same argument, they said it would be unfair to force a student facing such a bleak future to study.
“You think you’re prepared, and then you’re like, ‘There’s something we do when this happens. What do we do?’” said Baker, the English teacher. “And then we remember: We’re inventing the thing we do.”
Even months later, everyone at Travis Hill still brings Quincy up.
“They were like, ‘So what’s the point of this education if I’m getting time like him? Then this is a waste of my time. There’s no point, because that’s 25 years I’m not using this,’” said Burr, the math teacher.
“I don’t think they fully have even comprehended and come to terms with that kind of departure.”
This quandary arises all the time: fighting the idea that achievement is hollow in a hopeless place. It’s a struggle that teachers in poor, segregated schools around the country might find familiar. But it’s just a little starker here, and more justified, the students’ sense of the senselessness of what they are doing.
“High school and graduating, and traveling the world or writing my memoir, starting a business,” said Baker. “You know — all these things are almost myth.”
Amid all the algebra and essay-writing, this is ultimately the core curriculum at Travis Hill: demonstrating that it is a real school, and its hope is real hope.
The school condenses its units and semesters and holds award ceremonies every few weeks for students who could be sent to prison before the real semester ends. It also emphasizes concrete rewards like scores and credits, to hammer home the idea that learning in jail is not a self-deception.
“We gotta ramp up our hope, ramp up our optimism,” Baker said.
The school’s first-ever graduate, Tristion, who received a degree in April, succeeded in school by trying to ignore the part where he was in jail.
“I just picture myself in a real class setting… And I look at going back to the tier like going to this park,” he said.
That’s one of several alternative realities that Tristion cooked up. He also imagined he was in a military boot camp, or a hurricane shelter. Most of the students at Travis Hill are the babies of Hurricane Katrina.
Tristion, who in some classes just sat at a desk reading a dictionary, has a unique ability to conjure. He was put in jail for allegedly posing online as a police officer to convince underage girls to send him explicit photos. He dreams of being a firefighter — he dresses like one every Halloween — and owning a storm-evacuation business.
Even though he imagined his way to graduation, it was Tristion who finally made Travis Hill feel real. His walk across the stage in a cap and gown was proof to the other students that a future was still possible behind bars.
“I brought my diploma to my cell window so people could see it,” he said. “It just looked so good hanging up there.”
Some students asked Burr if they could stay at the jail longer to finish their studies, which Tristion had been allowed by the court to do.
A day after he graduated, he was sentenced to five years in prison, with a possible release date in 2021.
Just a week after Tristion’s graduation, jail interrupted school again.
It was April, approaching the end of the normal school year. That day, some new kids arrived at the jail.
One had a gang-related beef with some of the students already at Travis Hill. He started a fight almost as soon as he walked into his first classroom, with punching and wrestling and desks flying and one student trying to protect a female deputy from being hit.
Before long, the warden of the entire jail, along with a pair of massive, tattooed correctional officers, came down to the school. “We want to call you students,” the warden lectured, “but we’re gonna have control, willingly or unwillingly.”
In an art classroom afterward, there was still tension in the air, and anger and sadness etched on the students’ faces, as they tried to paint Japanese cherry blossoms by blowing air through a straw.
The warden decided to put every juvenile on lockdown for a full week: 23 hours a day in their cells, with each of them able to get out one at a time, for an hour.
At a school staff meeting the next day, Dorsey suggested treating the lockdown as sick days. “We can’t mark 17 kids absent at once,” he said. But realism was overcoming optimism. Gaddis said she worried the jail would shut the school down if security was at stake.
On the tier, a teen who was normally calm and deeply religious was now shouting from his cell, “Man, I’m done with school. Fuck school.” At one point, he and other students started throwing chairs, nearly inciting what Juron called a riot, when they were asked to talk about their feelings.
Even Kendrick, an 18-year-old student who says he deeply respects the Travis Hill staff, expressed deep frustration with them for not comprehending his daily dual existence.
Juron was also mad about being locked in his cell because of a fight he was not involved in. He said he still didn’t believe in school at all. But now, he said, he did want to go back. Not to learn, but to at least be doing something with his hands, eyes and brain.
That day on the juvenile unit of the New Orleans jail, his face was pressed flat up against the window of his cell door, staring out. This time, he was looking toward school, not freedom.