February 26, 2019

Ruth Tiechroeb

Tags: Corrections

Review of Reading Horizons

At the Detention School in King County's juvenile Jail, teacher Glenda Platt talks with a young offender in one of the facility's three new computer labs. "The most exciting thing is that I see hope being born in these kids," she says. "I want them to remember when they leave here that, 'Yes, I can learn.' "

Juvenile Offenders Discover Value of New Phonics Program

By Ruth Tiechroeb
P-l Reporter

Their tough veneer vanishes as the juvenile offenders in navy-blue jail garb gush about an unlikely topic: learning to read with phonics software in the new $80,000 computer labs at the Detention School in King County's juvenile jail.

The new high-tech literacy program was launched last month after a pilot project showed that phonics software could dramatically boost the reading skills of students incarcerated at the short-stay facility.

Glenda Platt, a special-education teacher at the school, said she began the program after discovering that her students on average had a fourth-grade reading ability. About 30 percent were illiterate.

"We've had phenomenal results," said Platt, who raised $66,000 last summer from private donors to help pay for the labs.

"I have yet to have a kid complete the program who didn't increase three or four grade levels."

On any given day, about 200 juvenile offenders spend an hour or two improving their reading skills in the school's three new 12-computer labs, which were installed last month. Previously, the school had a single 10- computer lab.

Attendance at the school, which is run by the Interagency Division of the Seattle School District, is mandatory while the juveniles are incarcerated.

Most students finish the basic phonics software program in about six weeks to two months. Phonics is a reading method that teaches students how to sound out words.

By contrast, traditional methods such as intensive one-to-one tutoring rarely improve students' reading skills more than one grade level every three months, Platt said.

What makes the project even more important is that learning to read is a powerful motivator for students who have given up hope of a better future, she said.

"Everybody knows the link between education and criminality," Platt said. "If you can't get a job because you can't read, you'll end up back in trouble."

One 17-year-old youth, who has been locked up every year since he was 11, said he used to be too embarrassed to read out loud for fear others would laugh at him. He'd never finished a book.

Now he has jumped from a fourth-grade reading level to almost a ninth-grade level after completing the interactive phonics program during three incarcerations since April totaling several months.

"I grew up in a scarred family, everyone doing drugs and fighting," said the teenager, who is awaiting the outcome of a car-theft charge.

"There was no one to help me with my homework when I came home. ... Now I want to get my GED (high school equivalency diploma). I want to set some goals and get a good job."

Reading: Literacy Can Mean Difference between Jail and Job

Another youth, who also is jailed on a car-theft charge, tested below a second-grade reading level when he arrived at the jail in April, even though he previously was enrolled in a 10th-grade special-education class.

Now, after several short stays at the juvenile jail since March totaling about four months, he's reading above a fourth-grade level.

"Computers are cool," said the 15-year-old, who eventually would like to graduate from high school. "It's way faster than working on paper."

Platt chose the Intensive Phonics software, designed by Utah-based Reading Horizons, because it was designed to teach illiterate adults to read and has been used successfully in the California prison system.

The Detention School was the first educational facility in Washington state to use the (Reading Horizons) phonics software, Platt said, although other schools, including Lafayette Elementary in West Seattle, are buying it now.

Many students at the Detention School have learning disabilities and severe behavioral problems caused by neglect, abuse or being born drug-affected or with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

But Platt said the interactive reading software grabbed the students' attention in ways that traditional methods had failed.

"The most exciting thing is that I see hope being born in these kids," she said. "I want them to remember when they leave here that, 'Yes, I can learn.'"

The phonics program begins by testing students to determine their reading level and tells them where to begin. Then students work at their own pace on specific skills that need improvement.

Audio instructions play through students' headphones as they sit in front of computer screens. A voice sounds out each new word and asks students to respond to questions.

Mistakes are corrected immediately, and daily scores can be printed out to measure progress.

When students need help, Platt is available as a resource.

"Most of these kids have controlled every classroom they've been in," she said. "I have a guard at the door. They know I love them, but I don't put up with anything."

Another advantage of computerized instruction is that it erases students' fear of being humiliated, she said.

"All these kids have is saving face," Platt said. "Before, the kids who couldn't read didn't want to admit they couldn't read."

Students have told Platt that they used to deliberately disrupt a class if they were asked to read out loud - and that they hoped to be kicked out.

Most students attend the Detention School for only a few weeks at a time before being released or moved to another correctional facility.

But because 75 percent of students at the Detention School are repeat offenders, the reading labs give them the chance to start over at the same level the next time they are incarcerated.

The software also allows students to pick up where they left off if they miss classes because of court dates or interviews with police and prosecutors.

For 95 percent of repeat offenders, the only schooling they get is in correctional facilities.

And nearly 80 percent of the 5,629 students who attended the Detention School last year came from poor families.

But the phonics program is not the end of the education line for juveniles at the Detention School.

The next step is an interactive reading comprehension program called Learning 100, designed by the Texas-based Steck Vaughn company. Other students work on their GED in the new computer labs or study English as a second language.

To offer students the option of continuing their studies upon release, Platt is hoping to raise $105,000 to install reading labs with the same software at seven other school sites that also are part of the Seattle School District's Interagency Program.

Donors who contributed to the Detention School's new computer labs were the Violet R. and Nada V. Bohnett Memorial Foundation, the Seattle Foundation, the Northwest Children's Fund and the William H. Gates Foundation.

P-I reporter Ruth Tiechroeb can be reached at 206-448-8175 or ruthtiechroeb@seattle-pi.com.

Grade Level: Secondary