Apparently more than just students are thriving in Georgia’s Department of Juvenile Justice School System – the instructors, staff and administrators too have made the grade.
DJJ’s school district has officially been recommended for accreditation from both the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) and the Correctional Education Association (CEA). The recommendations were announced Wednesday following an intensive four-day visit from representatives from both accrediting bodies.
“I’m happy,” gushed DJJ Commissioner Garland Hunt soon after the announcement. “I inherited a great system, with great people. I believe in what we’re striving for. I cannot stop expressing my appreciation to everyone here and the people on the ground; the principals, instructors and psychologists out there touching the lives of our students.”
The announcements followed SACS and CEA representatives’ interviews with students, staff, parents and administrators and a meticulous review of files. In all they visited eight DJJ Regional Youth Detention Centers and Youth Development Centers in Macon, Columbus, August, Atlanta and DeKalb County. The SACS team interviewed:
- 10 board members
- 36 administrators
- 35 teachers
- 34 support staff
- 17 parents, community and business partners
- 31 students
“A total of 163 stakeholders,” said Lead SACS Evaluator James Brown, who noted that the victory is no small feat for a school district that until several years ago had been under United States Department of Justice supervision.
“We were impressed that they’ve come so far in such a short time,” said Brown, a retired assistant school superintendent. “This process is not easy and they had to do it in record time. They met the standards and they had the documents to prove it.”
Although pleased with the outcome, DJJ schools superintendent Jack Catrett admitted that the preparation process was arduous.
“These last few days have been the accumulation of two years of work,” said Catrett. “So, this has been a celebration in many ways. Even though you know what the process will entail beforehand, it’s still kind of tough because you feel like someone’s in your house checking out every corner. You just have remind yourself that we’re good at what we do and just take it from there.”
CEA representative Tom Wellman was the first to relay the good news Wednesday. After brief comments at the podium that included complimenting DJJ’s student intake and assessment processes along with sharing remarks from parents who credited their child’s success in the system to “the cooperation of the (DJJ) staff,” he leaned into the microphone. “The Correctional Education Association audit team has confirmed that the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice School District be awarded CEA accreditation,” said Wellman. Good CEA standing, he emphasized, is measured by a system’s demonstrated relationship between security, treatment and education.
Wellman’s announcement was followed up by a similar proclamation from SACS. After a delivering a thorough overview of the SACS criteria and processes, which is executed under the umbrella organization AdvancED, Brown too, paused dramatically then said. “I am pleased to announce that Georgia’s Department of Juvenile Justice should be an accredited district.”
Both announcements sparked applause from the crowd of about 35 that attended the late afternoon gathering at DJJ’s DeKalb County headquarters. The accreditation news was notable in that it is:
- only the second time that SACS and CEA have ever united for a dual accreditation process for a state school district (Alabama was the first)
- DJJ’s first district-wide accreditation
- DJJ’s first pursuit of CEA accreditation
SACS accredited DJJ schools for the first time in 2005, but that process was completed on a school-by-school basis.
The SACS Quality Assessment Review (QAR) Team, made up of school system veterans with diverse experience, determined the DJJ system to be “Operational” overall and among a list of seven areas including:
- Vision and Purpose
- Governance and Leadership
- Teaching and Learning
- Documenting and Using Results
- Resources and Support Systems
- Stakeholder Communications and Relationships
- Commitment to Continuous Improvement
Operational is the second highest level in a ranking scale that also includes “Highly Functional” at the top level and “Emerging” and “Not Evident” at the lowest. A “Not Evident” in two or more of the seven assessment areas would jeopardize a system’s SACS standing.
“We are so proud that the work of our staff is seen as solid,” said Deputy Commissioner Amy Howell. “We are so pleased that our staff is being viewed as dedicated and committed to seeing our children succeed. We are very proud of that accomplishment.”
The SACS endorsement came with three suggestions for DJJ that were also echoed by CEA.
- Develop and implement an evaluation process that documents the effectiveness and impact of the district’s continuous improvement efforts.
- Design and implement an instructional technology plan for students.
- Incorporate into CAPS (the individualized learning packets students use in the classroom) more instructional strategies that include higher levels of critical thinking.
“Many of the students we talked to said they’d gotten more out of the DJJ school than in their other public school, because they felt that they could go at their own pace,” he said. “That seemed to take a lot of pressure off of them.”
Regional Principal Rufus Johnson served as the chairman of the accreditation process.
“We are finding the suggestions to be very appropriate,” he said. “The good news is that they are all things that we are basically doing. We just need to find a better way to document those things. I plan to respond to [SACS] with an implementation plan long before June 2011.”
The SACS and CEA teams both will formally make accreditation suggestions to their respective entities for a final vote. If approved, the good standing lasts for five years.
“It’s a five-year cycle, so in five years they will be back to see if we made the improvements they suggested,” said Catrett. “They’ll be back and we’ll be ready for them.”
Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at email@example.com. Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Fox 5 News in Atlanta and Atlanta, People and Essence magazines.