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State officials pledge improvements in education of juvenile offenders

State education officials pledged Wednesday to hire new teachers, fill vacancies and make other changes to improve the beleaguered school system that serves Maryland's juvenile offenders.

Armed with a $3 million increase in state funding, interim state schools Superintendent Jack Smith told a House committee in Annapolis that his department will hire 40 new staff members, including 20 teachers, and build a pipeline of substitutes given the system's high turnover rate.

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The hearing was called after a Baltimore Sun investigation detailed how juvenile offenders have routinely been denied access to education services to which they are entitled under federal law.

"We need to mitigate these problems because these students are the most vulnerable in the state," Smith told members of the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday. "Everybody owns this situation."

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The Sun's investigation, published in December, detailed how the roughly 5,000 young offenders a year who attend school while in the Maryland juvenile justice system have been denied access to critical special education services, certified teachers, state curriculum courses and vocational and college opportunities.

Many critics describe the schools, which were turned over to the Maryland State Department of Education beginning in 2004, as little more than warehouses with worksheets, and say the system is woefully understaffed and underfunded.

After the article, lawmakers vowed to take action this legislative session.

Last week, Gov. Larry Hogan proposed that the Juvenile Services Education Program receive a $3 million increase next year, to $19.7 million. The money pays for the operation of schools in 14 facilities run by the Department of Juvenile Services.

Matt Clark, a spokesman for Hogan, said the added funding is designed to ensure that every student receives as much individualized instruction as possible. It will keep staffing ratios at the schools below 5 to 1, and ensure that each school has at least four teachers.

"The administration will continue to review the performance of this important program and may make resource adjustments in the future," Clark said.

Legislation filed Wednesday by state Sen. Delores Kelley, with the backing of Senate leaders, seeks to make the salaries for teachers in the juvenile services schools more competitive with those of public school educators.

Recruiting teachers to the schools has been a challenge, as they work 220 days a year compared with 180 days in public schools and under more challenging conditions.

Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat, said she believes the schools need even more money. She pointed out that a facility in Carroll County run by a private contractor hired by the Department of Juvenile Services has a $20 million a year budget, which is significantly more than the budgets of the 14 other department-run schools.

Kelley said the pay disparity in the schools was driving a lot of the staffing problems.

"We need sufficient resources so that we don't have teachers more poorly paid in this system than in regular public schools," she said. "It's unfair, and it's a disparity."

Nick Moroney, the state's independent juvenile justice monitor whose reports have detailed shortcomings in the facilities for years, said he saw progress in both the budget and Kelley's proposals.

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He said Kelley's bill represents a "long-term solution that attempts to permanently address some of the disparities" between juvenile services schools and other public schools.

Hogan's proposed allocation is a "necessary and welcomed first step toward ensuring that kids stuck in the deep end of the Maryland juvenile justice system are not going to be as short-changed as they have been on education services," Moroney said.

Del. Adrienne Jones, the Baltimore County Democrat who chairs the subcommittee that called Wednesday's hearing, said she did her own research and found that state officials had made promises two years ago to fix problems plaguing the system.

"Throwing money at this isn't the answer," she told Smith. "What assurances can you give this committee that we won't be back here in two years."

Smith told lawmakers the department made many improvements in the past three years, such as getting Internet service and aligning courses with those in the state's public schools. The department has also focused on intensive professional development and expanding vocational and college offerings, and it continues to shift from being a support and compliance agency to directly delivering services to students.

The state's biggest challenges stem from staffing, Smith said.

The current vacancy rate in the juvenile services schools is 28 percent, up from 15 percent in December when the department employed 170 staff members, including 118 teachers.

Smith said a major challenge is that teachers in the program are state employees who can resign at any time with no consequences.

"State employees who resign leave a gap in service to our students that concerns me greatly," Smith said.

The department will devote $100,000 to contract with a vendor that provides substitutes to other school systems. Among others to be hired are 12 instructional assistants, two counselors and two administrative staff members.

The department will also hire four new special education teachers, an area that Smith said continues to fall short.

In the past two years, state education officials have acknowledged in investigative reports that special education students have been denied services, even to the point of schools revising special education records to delete services they could not afford to offer.

"There isn't a school across this state that has what it needs when it comes to special education staffing. It's one of the most critical areas," Smith said.

The Maryland branch of the NAACP has filed a complaint with the federal office of civil rights.

Still, advocates and some lawmakers say they are encouraged by the proposals and would like to see more.

"The governor's funding initiative as well as Senator Kelley's salary parity effort are steps in the right direction," said Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat. "Money alone, though, won't solve this problem. We need a relentless focus on outcomes that ensures all Maryland's constitutional rights are protected and respected."

Rais Akbar, juvenile justice director at Advocates for Children and Youth, said site visits have shown that staff members at the schools need more support.

"The problems are not just about money," he said. "It's deeper than that."

Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.

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