Guest column: Education vs. incarceration for troubled teens

Something remarkable is about to happen at Gateway Community School in Camarillo, which serves students who have faced a rocky road on their high school journey. Some have been expelled from their regular high schools, and others have had run-ins with the law. All of them have faced significant hurdles as they work toward earning their high school diplomas.

Typically, several of the students in Gateway’s senior class fail to meet the requirements for graduation. But this year, nearly all 21 of them will receive their diplomas and have plans to enroll in college or enter the workforce. Things could easily have turned out differently for these students if they had been incarcerated for their offenses rather than given the support they needed to turn their lives around.

Getting these students across the finish line took the involvement of caring professionals from the Ventura County Office of Education, which operates Gateway, and our partners at Ventura County Behavioral Health and the Ventura County Probation Agency. They built the relationships and made the connections with students and families necessary to overcome the obstacles that can easily derail the goal of graduating.

Many of the students have to hold down jobs to support their families and must juggle the demands of both school and work. Some of them are parents who struggle to find childcare so they can attend class. When schools were closed to in-person learning due to the pandemic, they missed out on critical support and guidance that couldn’t be duplicated online.

When students returned to Gateway in person, the staff redoubled their efforts to make up for lost time. They increased the opportunities for students to recover missed credits. They were in constant communication with students and parents to boost attendance and track progress. And they partnered with Oxnard College to tour the campus and help students with the admissions process. The students also stepped up to the plate by coming to class, keeping appointments with counselors, and catching up with schoolwork on evenings and weekends.

While we’re celebrating the increase in Gateway’s graduation rate, we’re excited to see a different statistic on the decline. The Ventura County Office of Education also operates Providence School, which is located inside the Ventura County Juvenile Justice Facility in El Rio. For years, the number of students at Providence has been dropping as teens are increasingly diverted to places like Gateway instead of putting them behind bars. It’s a shift in priorities that’s paying real dividends, as we can see with this year’s Gateway graduating class.

In a few weeks, they will proudly walk across the stage in caps and gowns to receive their hard-earned diplomas. While high school graduation is a given for many kids, it’s quite a bit more for these students. It’s proof that the mistakes they’ve made in the past don’t have to define their future. It’s a testament to the good that can come when public agencies collaborate in the best interest of students who need extra help. And it’s a reminder that the will to improve, grow, and succeed is alive and well in all of us.

Dr. Cesar Morales
Dr. Cesar Morales

Dr. César Morales is the Ventura County Superintendent of Schools.

This article originally appeared on Ventura County Star: Guest column: Education vs. incarceration for troubled teens