Middlesex College students and Middlesex Juvenile Detention Center (JDC) residents are being uplifted by an expansion of R.I.S.E – Reaching Individual Success through Education – a program serving an underserved population in the detention center.
Thanks to recent grant funding from the Middlesex College Foundation and the New Jersey Governor’s Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Committee, Middlesex College has been able to expand to even greater heights its R.I.S.E. program for JDC residents.
The program has grown from Middlesex College offering college programming to Middlesex JDC residents to having Middlesex JDC residents actually earn college credits as Middlesex College students.
But as the program’s founder Middlesex College Professor Alexandra Fields notes, Middlesex College students also benefit from the collaborative teaching program that gives college students teaching experience, perspective and inspiration.
“Middlesex College students who have partnered with Middlesex County JDC residents often tell me about how this experience has helped to humanize their understanding of people who commit crimes, and for some students, it has even led to new career pathways. One student of mine was planning on dropping out of college; however, when she began the partnership with Middlesex JDC residents, it led her to realize her passion for social work, and she recently graduated with her associate degree and is on her way to becoming a social worker for incarcerated youth,” Fields said.
At the Middlesex County JDC, youth who graduate from the detention center’s high school often remain in the detention center for extended periods of time without access to additional educational programming. That is why, four years ago, Middlesex College partnered with the JDC to offer college programming to JDC residents.
R.I.S.E. began in 2017, when Fields, professor of English and co-faculty service-learning coordinator at Middlesex College, began a service-learning partnership with the JDC.
Fields explains that she “entered the field of English education, in part, because of my belief in the transformational power of literature and literacy education, especially for students from historically disenfranchised and academically disempowered backgrounds. Teaching incarcerated and pre-adjudicated juveniles has furthered my belief in the power of writing and reading as a means of empowerment and transformation. I have watched students who lack confidence and have extreme histories of trauma blossom into articulate and impassioned readers, writers and presenters.
“I am inspired by my students’ unwavering commitment to their studies in their quest to create better pathways for themselves and their loved ones,” she continued. “My students are truly inspirational, and their passion for our coursework and their commitment to college in the face of numerous obstacles is what fuels my passion as an educator and my desire to continue to advocate for college coursework on their behalf.”
Through a collaborative partnership with detention center educational staff, a cohort of Middlesex College students who were enrolled in English Composition II engaged in-person with JDC residents as participants learned how to research, write argumentative research-supported essays, and design collaborative final presentations of their papers.
Both Middlesex JDC residents and Middlesex College students valued this partnership and wanted it to extend beyond a single semester’s class.
Courtney Maino, a Middlesex College student in one of these service-learning classes, decided to partner with Fields to establish a Juvenile Justice Reform Club on campus to ensure that she could continue working with JDC residents even after her college class had ended.
Not only did Maino become club’s president and co-founder, but she also credits this work with giving her a renewed focus on graduating from college and finding her passion as a helping professional.
“Little did I know that this service-learning course would change how I felt about school and what I wanted to do in life,” she said. “I graduated from Middlesex College with an associate degree in Human Services/Social Work, and after I achieve my bachelor’s degree, I plan to continue my education and obtain a master’s in social work to become a clinical social worker.”
Middlesex JDC residents also enjoyed working with the college, and residents expressed a desire to earn college credits as Middlesex College students. Consequently, during the Spring 2021 semester, the college, for the first time, was able to secure scholarship funds from the college’s foundation to support eight juvenile detention center participants in registering for English Composition I, and every student successfully completed the class.
“It helped me think about how society and our court system view me for my mistakes, and it made me think deeper and look into the real-world problems that we’re sometimes misinformed about,” said J. R., one of the program’s participants. “And the most important lesson I took away from the experience was looking into what I can do to help see the changes that I want in this world.”
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, all in-person services for detention center youth were halted. In March, the college received a grant from the New Jersey Governor’s Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (JJDP) Committee that is administered by the Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC). This grant has allowed the college to continue offering remote access to college courses to students in the Middlesex JDC.
The funds cover all instructional costs, textbooks, and the technological needs of JDC residents enrolled in remote college classes.
Additionally, the grant funds enabled the college to develop a formal peer-mentorship program between Middlesex College Juvenile Justice Reform Club students and Middlesex JDC residents.
To assist county detention center youth during the pandemic, funding was provided to nonprofit and educational organizations to continue or enhance services with the understanding that many services were impacted or stopped in order to prevent the virus from spreading.
These funds are made available based on the philosophy that communities have a unique understanding of their local youth populations. The JJC administers millions of dollars in state and federal grants that encourage the development and enhancement of a continuum of community-based services for at-risk, court-involved, and delinquent youth.
JDC student Q.C. says that through his coursework and peer mentoring, he has come to realize that “being incarcerated doesn’t define who you are; you can be anything that you choose to be in life. During this college class I learned that no matter who I am or where I am, I can still be successful in life.”
Students at the Middlesex JDC are currently enrolled in their second semester of college, now taking English Composition II with Fields. In July, a new cohort of students began taking English Composition I, and although grant funding for this program ends Sept. 30, the college is actively seeking new funds, including potential funds from JJC/JJDP Committee, in order to continue the program and advance its goal of creating more high-quality college programming for system-impacted students.