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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 66.0° F  Fair
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At Madison's Metro High, a school in the Dane County Jail, teaching is only part of the job
Anderson (right) and Chavez seek to 'ensure that kids leave
Metro in a better space than when they arrived.'
Anderson (right) and Chavez seek to 'ensure that kids leave Metro in a better space than when they arrived.'
Credit:Mary Langenfeld

Deb Anderson makes an observation about her students: "These kids just aren't very good criminals." She's hoping they decide, with her help, not to seek careers in the field.

Anderson is a teacher at Metro High, a little-known school run out of the Dane County jail. Her students, some as young as 14, are serving time for crimes including car theft, driving without a license, shoplifting, robbery, gang activity, sexual assault and even murder.

"We get kids who are so low when they come here they feel that they don't count," says Anderson. "We teach them that they are a valuable person, and not to let anyone make them believe differently. They want someone to sit down with them and listen to what they have to say."

One of her students, who we'll call Sam, committed a string of felony robberies after a fight with his mother. Anderson recognized that Sam had learning and emotional disabilities; he needed a teacher more than he needed to be locked up.

With Anderson's encouragement, Sam became an avid reader, which helped improve his self-confidence as well as to pass the time during the 10 months he spent in jail. And with the credits he earned at Metro High, he was able to graduate from his home school of Monona Grove.

Sam, who turned 18 during his incarceration, now works for Operation Fresh Start, a nonprofit that trains at-risk young people to build homes. Anderson helped get Sam in the program.

Sam's aunt says Anderson "saw that he had potential and gave him a quiet place to study. She was very accessible to the family and communicated with Sam's mom and me. Sam looked at Deb as a mentor and trusted her."

Metro High, part of the Madison Metropolitan School District, began in 1996 with Anderson as its first teacher. Anderson, now 53, had been a special education teacher at La Follette for 14 years.

The school usually has between 15 and 20 students at any one time. The school's budget - $191,195 in 2008-09 - is covered by local dollars but fully reimbursed by the state.

"Metro High provides another opportunity for learning for students," says Nancy Yoder, who oversees alternative education for the Madison school district. "It helps to rekindle the enthusiasm and get the spark of interest back with an eye to future."

In Wisconsin, anyone who has reached the age of 17 is considered an adult by the criminal justice system, and kids as young as 14 can be waived into adult court, depending on the severity of the crime.

But Wisconsin has compulsory school attendance through age 18 or high school graduation, regardless of where the child lays his or her head at night. And so juveniles in adult jail, like those in juvenile institutions, must go to school. Metro High provides this mandated service for young people in jail here.

While Metro High's students may not be clamoring to get in, they usually benefit from the experience. Anderson and fellow teacher Tina Chavez do more than teach reading, writing and arithmetic. They are advocates for their charges, helping them navigate their way through legal and family services systems.

Chavez, 37, has been teaching at Metro High since 1998. She was one of Anderson's former student teachers at La Follette.

"The academics are important," says Chavez. "But who the kids are and how they are going to function in the world are most important."

Anderson and Chavez test each student on his or her first day of class. Then they seek to identify realistic educational goals and vocational options.

Many of the students are bipolar, suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome, Asperger's disorder, or are mentally ill. Helping develop the social skills needed to get along with other people is a part of the daily curriculum.

"Jail is a temporary holding facility; no one stays here forever," says Anderson. "It is our responsibility to ensure that kids leave Metro in a better space than when they arrived. They make better neighbors that way."

Metro High classes consist of four to six students each. Two or three sessions are taught per day. A sheriff's deputy escorts Anderson's students from their cells to the narrow rectangular classroom located on the seventh floor of the City-County Building.

The classroom, with a view of Lake Monona, is stocked with computers, books and maps. On the walls are photos taken by Anderson of current and former students wearing the cap and gown from their high school graduation.

Anderson worries about possible budget cuts - especially during the summer months, when school is not mandated. She hopes school officials remember "there is no difference for our captive audience" during these months.

Many students are anxious about their legal situations. Anderson and Chavez counsel them on handling stress, including preparing them for going to prison.

The caring doesn't end when the kids leave jail. Anderson and Chavez give students their phone numbers in case they need direction and also to provide "Miss Deb" and "Miss Tina" with updates on their progress in the real world.

"I believe that each of us is where we're meant to be," says Anderson. "For whatever reason. I am constantly humbled by what I learn from the kids."

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