5 Questions with Dave Domenici, Advocate for Incarcerated Students


Dave Domenici is a school founder and principal, inspirer and lifelong educator. His organization, the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings (CEEAS), works to transform schools in youth correctional facilities around the country. CEEAS works closely with over a dozen state juvenile justice agencies and nearly 50 sites — and provides curricular and instructional tools to hundreds of teachers working with our country’s most at-risk and vulnerable students.

Emerson Collective’s Managing Partner Anne Marie Burgoyne spoke with Dave about CEEAS’s latest projects, what he’s learned about incarcerated students, and the challenges of bringing quality education to youth facilities.

All photos by Richard Ross, courtesy CEEAS, unless otherwise noted.

On any given day in the United States, 70,000 young people are held in juvenile detention.

How did CEEAS start?

I had been one of the co-founders of the Maya Angelou schools, which were alternative schools in Washington, D.C., for kids who were involved in the court system or just otherwise highly at risk. After doing that for a number of years, we got asked to run the school in DC’s youth correctional facility.

After serving as the principal of the Maya Angelou Academy for four years, I thought it would make sense to try to take some of what we had learned at the Maya Academy and help support and try to improve education in schools and youth facilities around the country. We started a separate non-profit, CEEAS, to help us do that work.

From 2007 to 2011, Dave served as the founding principal of the Maya Angelou Academy inside Washington, D.C.'s long-term secure detention facility. Photo by Amanda Voisard for OZY.

What has surprised you most about working with incarcerated youth? My guess is you have many stories here, but I’m wondering: Where are the places where you’ve just said, “Wow”?

I think, not surprisingly, the biggest “wows” are probably both ends of the spectrum. On the bad end, I’m appalled and — I don’t know what the word is — offended and taken aback and saddened that I still go into facilities where the nature of confinement and the access to quality education is so bad that, as a human being with a soul, you feel like this is so incredibly wrong. But the system is so entrenched, it’s hard to fix.

As an example, I was in a facility only a couple months ago where the students are in a dark classroom. The window are painted over. There are just beaten down, crappy textbooks everywhere. The kids don’t have pencils. The teacher does a couple ridiculous little math problems on the board. One of the classrooms doesn’t even have a teacher so for months the way they do school is that teacher just hops back and forth between the classes. One class gets a half hour. The next class doesn’t. In the interim, literally they just sit there in the dark dingy classroom that hasn’t been cleaned in years. It was just God-awful.

I don’t want to harp on this, but it’s inconceivable that that still takes place and that the institution is not shut down by the state or by somebody — and that human beings are in there doing this, not taking stock of how wrong it is and of their involvement in it. This could never take place in a public school in a community setting.

On the positive “wow” end, I continue to be really wowed both by students and by some of the adults who work with them. Listen to the podcast that came out of our [poetry initiative] Words Unlocked, the poetry and the music that came out of Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles and another school in Indiana. The poetry is beautiful. The music is beautiful. You have teachers, one born and raised in central LA, working with kids there, then two others working in rural Indiana. In one sense their lives are so different but on the other hand they’re so very similar — they’re adults who are incredibly well-grounded and they are totally all in for their kids.

There are kids with incredible talents and incredible voices. On straight academic achievement scores, many of them are really struggling. And they need to develop the behavioral, meta-cognitive, and social norms to be successful. But if you can get beyond those challenges and get to the heart of other things, you realize just how talented they are and just how much they have to offer. What you need to do is help them start to address these aspects of their lives, which are going to be really critical so they can be successful when they leave.

“There are just kids with incredible talents and incredible voices.”

Can you describe the kinds of programs that CEEAS runs and how, over time, the programming that you offer has grown?

At the center, we work in a few different aspects of the juvenile justice education reform space.

One thing we do is work directly with either schools or juvenile justice agencies in a very hands-on, tangible way to help them improve practices or policies that they have in place. For example, we work directly with sites who want to improve the quality of their special education services in youth facilities. We work with sites who really want to stop having as many kids locked up in isolation or segregation and have a better strategy around behavior management and student engagement, so that more kids stay in school and have less behavioral problems. We work intensively with schools and juvenile justice agencies around issues like this.

Second, we run nationwide initiatives where we try to push “goodness” out into the field. That goodness might mean we think the content is highly engaging and meaningful; and we also create tools that we think serve as good examples. We build curricular and instructional models so that schools and youth facilities can access the tools and deliver them in ways that work.

For example, we run a nationwide poetry initiative called Words Unlocked. We put materials up online that are very well-designed and user-friendly for teachers, and we don’t charge for it. Then we build friendly competitions [around the material] so that students can submit their poems, and we engage volunteers from around the country to serve as judges. The judges select winning poems, which we post and celebrate. We’re trying to model this and tell youth facilities around the country, “You can do it with us, but you can also do it on your own.”

Third, we work with cohorts of agencies from around the country to build momentum for broad-based change and improvement. [This summer I was] in Baltimore with 70 people from around the country who are working with us over the course of the year to build their capacity to use blended learning and high engagement strategies to improve education in their facilities. We post an RFP, states, school districts, and juvenile justice agencies from around the country apply to work with us, and we select a cohort of teaching fellows. We run a week-long technology boot camp and then we support people throughout the year at multiple levels — we get teachers the right tools to do this in their classroom. At the policy level, we work with state agencies and policy directors to change their policies around technology use and internet access, so that those can become a viable, meaningful way to really radically improve schools.

The fourth thing, which we just started in August, is to actually run the school inside of the detention center in New Orleans. This is sort of a full circle back to Maya Angelou Academy. We now have a staff of 17 — five of us who do national work, and 12 of us who actually work in New Orleans and run the school there. The Orleans Parish School Board was excited to have us come in as their partner, and the criminal justice system in New Orleans needs to change. We’re glad to be a part of it. We have found terrific people in the educational ecosystem here who jumped at the chance to start a school in a juvenile justice facility and be a part of really trying to address the school-to-prison pipeline in New Orleans.

A major component of CEEAS’s work is building curricular instructional models — currently in use in nearly 50 schools and youth facilities across the country.

How do you know when your work is working—both from an operational aspect and from a “deep in Dave’s heart” aspect?

We try hard on this. The honest answer is we don’t have as much data as we would like, and that’s partly due to our own capacity challenges and somewhat due to the capacity challenges of the places we work. If you go down our list of initiatives, it looks different in different places.

It is very hard to know whether really robust [participation in Words Unlocked] — where kids all around the country who are locked up get to write poetry, read poetry, celebrate poetry — radically changes their reading scores or their love of writing or their capacity to believe they’re a writer and have a voice. We don’t know. What we do know is we get a lot of feedback from teachers and kids that this is meaningful, it makes the month of April a lot better, and we get more people who want to do this every year. Given what that initiative is, which is about seeding quality programming and giving students a chance to write, share, and create — not about improving reading scores — I think it’s successful.

We are working really hard on our blended learning initiative, and we have implementation data that’s good, but we don’t yet have access to data about student outcomes. We have five states and 20 facilities and we know how many of them in the spring of 2015 had access to internet for kids (none); how many of them had bandwidth that had the right capacity to support kids using the internet (none); how many of them had any sort of responsible use agreement and sort of digital citizenship tools in place (none). We know at a great level of detail how many of them have those in place six months later, once they’ve worked with us, done the boot camp, and made their commitments.

On all those levers, the numbers illustrate really significant changes and we feel really good about that. What we’re hoping for is increased level of engagement and increased student achievement scores and we just aren’t there yet, but I think we’ll get there.

CEEAS recently opened a school inside the juvenile detention facility in New Orleans.

By law, every child in this country has the right to an education. What do you see as the major obstacles to delivering quality education to kids who are in locked facilities? And what do you think could be the checks on that?

One way to look at it is that we as a country don’t do a very good job educating poor, minority kids living in segregated spaces. We also don’t do a good job of educating poor white kids who live in isolated rural areas. There’s a host of reasons why we don’t do that well, but it largely relates to income and capacity to affect the political and other processes that, ultimately, determine where, on whom, and how we allocate our tax dollars.

Kids in youth facilities are similar to these groups but even more so in all ways. They are more segregated. They are more hidden. They are more “other.” There is even more of a sense of like, “Well why in the hell should we be spending a lot of resources on them? They’ve broken into my car or stolen someone else’s wallet.” I think there are socio-political systems that make this hard generally, and harder for this sub-population.

Then more specifically, there are some system policy challenges that relate to some of my specific observations. For example, there are states where young people get sent very far away, to isolated facilities, and it is not easy. Once you decide that you have 50 kids from all over a large state in an isolated facility that’s 100 miles from any sort of large metropolitan area, any improvement you’re doing there is to some degree incremental and is only going to get so good because of these challenges. Human capital challenges, technology challenges, limited parent and community groups able to advocate for change on behalf of their children challenges.

These are examples of policy challenges. There are other policy challenges as well. We don’t have good performance measures in place to hold schools — whoever runs them — accountable in these facilities. Most of us believe that when you want things to improve, you have to have tools in place to let people know what you expect — to train them to meet those measures and then to have some level of accountability if they don’t. That just doesn’t really exist in many of these spaces.

It will take work, but ultimately we need to have some performance measures and some accountability measures. And when these schools don’t meet those, we’ll need some real tools in place that will mandate change.

What's Next?

· Listen to the Words Unlocked podcast, featuring the voices and insights of incarcerated students
· Read more about the issue of mass incarceration in the United States
· Learn more about CEEAS programming