Partnership closes educational gap for Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice

Chronicle Media

College of DuPage Criminal Justice students from Haen-Darden’s Juvenile Delinquency class will spend their semester working with IYC Warrenville students to help them with career assessments and library research for their final speech presentations and written essays. Each COD student is assigned to an IYC-Warrenville student as a mentor and guide.

Six youths in secure care at the Illinois Youth Center in Warrenville are also in college this fall through  College of DuPage.

Through a longstanding partnership with COD, the youths are enrolled in five credit hours of courses this semester with additional offerings available in the spring. 

Access to education has the ability to change lives, Heidi Mueller, Director of the Department of Juvenile Justice, said. 

“Youth in the juvenile justice system need to believe that they have a future and the adults around them need to nurture that belief and see their potential as well,” Mueller said. “The faculty at COD dedicate their time to not only teaching these kids but to showing them they are worthy humans with exponential potential.” 

The courses were piloted last year with a hybrid schedule of IYC Warrenville youth attending classes at their facility and on COD’s Glen Ellyn campus.

Given the success of the pilot, this year students are taking all available courses—College Success Skills, Career Development, Short Stories and Speech—on the COD campus. Courses are taught by COD Manager of Student Life Chuck Steele, English Professor Jackie McGrath and Criminal Justice Professor Stacie Haen-Darden. 

Prior to this program, the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice did not have  post-secondary collegiate opportunities for youth at IYC Warrenville, making it the only youth center in Illinois to not have a local college affiliation. 

Mueller said that through its partnership with COD, the DJJ is able to fulfill its vision of creating a prison-to-college pipeline for all youth centers under their jurisdiction. 

“At DJJ, we found ourselves with this sort of positive problem of increasing the number of youth graduating from high school while in our care—seeing that light and motivation turn on in them as they start to realize their potential—but not having a lot of post-secondary options for them,” she said. “College of DuPage has provided them with the opportunity to continue on with education and has given them the confidence to reach for their hopes and dreams.” 

COD Criminal Justice Professors Theo Darden and Stacie Haen-Darden were instrumental in forging the longstanding partnership between COD and IYC Warrenville that began more than a decade ago when former IYC Warrenville Superintendent Judy Davis sat on the College’s Criminal Justice Advisory Board. 

After years of COD criminal justice students volunteering at the youth center to gain professional experience, the idea of the college credit partnership program developed. Haen-Darden secured a Resource for Excellence Grant, funded by the COD Foundation to launch the pilot.

 Haen-Darden’s passion for this educational initiative stems from her belief that many kids who commit crimes come from broken backgrounds, but they can have a promising future if offered the right support. 

“Many times, kids commit crimes because of physical, sexual or emotional abuse they have encountered in their lives,” she said. “They haven’t come from a background rich with opportunities or resources to succeed. When incarcerated, they often don’t have the same access as everyone else to education—and the sad part is, many of them never did. When we look at rehabilitation, you can’t question that the more education you have, be it youth or adults, the less likely you are to re-offend.” 

The partnership is one of many efforts implemented by the DJJ to effectively reverse the school-to-prison pipeline. DJJ youth who participate in post-secondary education options have a statistically lower chance of re-offending and re-entering the system, Mueller said. 

“What’s so important about this particular program at COD is that it provides the youth not only with the educational instruction but with this normative experience of actually being able to go on campus and experience what college life is like,” she said. “Once our youth start to realize they are smart and that this path can be real for them, they become so incredibly focused and motivated.” 

One student who participated in the pilot called her experience at COD life changing.

“These classes have taught me to love myself more and to understand the kind of person I am,” she said. “When something bad happens to you, or if you have been through a traumatic experience, this doesn’t mean that you get left behind. Just because we are or were in the system does not have to mean that we’re stuck in it. We have to make the decision to change paths and realize we’re important and we just need a guiding hand to lead the way. Sometimes I feel like I’m not college material, almost like I’m not smart enough, but now I know if I work hard enough, I can do it. I can do anything.” 

COD student Julia Rigney saw firsthand how important this opportunity was to the youth. Through her internship in COD’s Criminal Justice program, Rigney ran weekly study halls where she helped students with their homework and guided them through weekly journaling exercises. What she thought would simply be a resume builder turned out to be a life-formative experience, she said. 

“One of the most rewarding experiences that I had was watching the students excel and go from not believing they could go to college to wanting to pursue a college career,” she said. “Many of the students just need someone to believe in them and their ability to succeed. The most important lesson this experience has taught me is that we as a society cannot put a high enough value on human life.” 

And while this program is still small and in its early stages, Haen-Darden said it’s already making a positive impact on its students. After leaving the care of IYC Warrenville, two students who participated in the pilot are enrolled in traditional college this fall.

 “I plan on running with the opportunity,” one student said. “I have dreams and goals geared towards public policy and law. I want to help people less fortunate and give back to my disenfranchised community. I finally see the potential in myself that had been missing for so long. I feel transformed by this opportunity, and my family and my future family will be impacted by the COD Foundation’s generosity.”