Article Title:Creating a Juvenile Justice Reform Movement

The Vallejo City Unified School District’s Story of Summer Jobs and Hire Education

Written by bel Reyes, IjeomaOnonuju and Kindra F. Montgomery-Block

September 2013

“Every Movement Needs a Home” – Marian Wright Edelman.

A movement has been created for juvenile justice reform in Solano County, California. Home, for this movement resides within the Vallejo City Unified School District (VCUSD) led by Superintendent Dr. Ramona Bishop. VCUSDis the lead partner and grantee for the Sierra Health Foundation’s Positive Youth Justice Initiative (PYJI). This Solano County grant has helped bring together a variety of key partners to plan, develop, and implement a menu of support strategies for crossover youth(youth who have been involved with the child welfare system and are now involved with the juvenile justice system).This article highlights the voice of youth participants involved in the “Putting Our Youth to Work Initiative” a special project generated by the PYJI. The UC Davis School of Education, Center for Community School Partnerships, conducted thestudy.

Youth jobs provide a link for constructive time, personal reflection, community connections, and adult allies. In the winter of 2013, VCUSD and its Positive Youth Justice taskforce partnersheld stakeholder focus group meetings to document and understand the strengths and gaps in services for crossover youth and, ultimately, all system-involved youth. A common issue surfaced across all focus groups: both young people and adults expressed the lack of employment opportunities for youth. Youth urged VCUSD and its Positive Youth Justice Taskforcemembers to create employment opportunities in Vallejo for young people. In direct response to this request, the Mayor’s Office of the City of Vallejo in collaboration with VCUSD, and the support of local businesses, established a summer work experience program – Putting Our Youth to Work: Supporting Youth Through HIRE Education.

In the spring of 2013 the Putting Our Youth to Work (POY2W) program was established and promoted to VCUSD youth 16-18 years of age who wanted to make a positive change in their lives. The summer months represent distinct challenges for young people that have been involved in the juvenile justice system. The unstructured, idle time can sometimes lead to reoccurring charges and even recidivism.POY2W was created as a 6-week summer work experience program designed to link positive youth skill development and employment opportunities. At the end of their summer 2013 work experience severalof the POY2W students were interviewed for a research ethnography study about their involvement in the program. These students represent a wide variety of ethnicities, socio-economic status, age and experiences. From students who have been involved in the juvenile justice system, to students who have recently immigrated to the country in order to take advantage of opportunities such as this one, even students who have excelled in their studies, all of the students interviewed were able to find value in the POY2W paid internship experience and excelled in their respective positions. After conducting the interviews with the students, 5 major themes began to emerge across all experiences: Social & Emotional Development, Resiliency, Adult Mentorship, & Self-Affirmation, Home Finances. Each of these themes will be discussed in further detail.

Social & Emotional Development – One of the interview questions was, what skills students would gain and in particular what soft (people) skills would they gain. Many of the students directly addressed this question by noting an increased competency in customer service skills and patience. Indirectly, while talking about their experience, students consistently pointed to their own growth and maturity as individuals and the ability to look beyond their own experiences to see how they fit into the bigger picture. One student speaking on his own personal growth says, “I feel like it gives you responsibility... Its not nobody forcing you to do something you don’t want to do.” While another student talks about having empathy for others when she says “you have to have patience with patients because sometimes they’re really sick and they need attention, so sometimes I talk to them.” Statements about personal growth and social and emotional growthcame up across all those who were interviewed.

Resiliency –Regardless of background and experiences, each of the students interviewed talked about persevering against all odds: fighting for what they want in life. As one student says “patience is a virtue,” and it is patience that each of these students talked about exhibiting throughout their internship and even in getting to their internship. In a letter written by a student at the conclusion of the internship, she talks about being resilient even through self-doubt. Almost as if she was speaking for all of her peers, in the letter she says, “What has really pushed me to want to achieve those things is that I had to want it myself.”

Adult Mentorship– Often times when you talk about resilience you talk about mentorship as well. Whether it was a parent or a teacher or someone from the job, all of the students talked about having someone who believed in them and mentored them. In that same letter where the student talks about wanting it for herself, she says “You saw something in me, which has motivated me to better myself in all aspects of my life,” alluding to the importance of adult mentorship in the process of resilience and achievement. What is often understated when talking about mentorship is consistency within the mentorship relationship? One of the student representatives talks about both the impact of consistency and non-consistency when it comes to mentorship. She says:

“You know we see a lot of people come, they just come and ask you questions and don’t nothing happen… But now that I’m actually in it I’m like, ‘oh ok, there’s actually somebody out there that cares for us, that want to see us doing good and not just being on the streets all day, doing nothing but going to jail and getting in trouble… We not really use to this.”

The role of caring adults cannot be overstated as a critical component of student achievement, evident by the voice of the students interviewed in the program.

Self-Affirmation– One of the most apparent positives of the POY2W internship that the students spoke of was affirmation of self and affirmation of goals. Whether it was affirming future aspirations, self-esteem or merely a philosophical view of life, each of the students interviewed experienced some form of self-affirmation. Affirmation is an essential component of self-actualization or the ability to realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment and seeking personal growth (Maslow 1968). As one of the students stated in his interview, “What [I] gotta do to get done, to get where [I] need to be, is what [I] gotta do to get done.” The internship, from the perspective of the students interviewed, has sparked their potential to self-actualize through self-affirmation.

Home Finances–

Interviewer: What will you use the money from the internship on?

Student: It depends on how our expenses are looking. Sometimes it might be a little tight during the month so you either got to help out or put up.”

Interviewer: When you say “our expenses,” whom exactly are you referring to?

Student: My parents.

Fifty-percent of the students interviewed stated that the money earned from the internship would be used to assist in the home/family finances in one way or another. Whether it was providing parents a loan, paying a bill, “putting money on the tank (gas),” the internship provided students with an opportunity to help contribute and in some cases fill a void in the home/family finances. As a result, the internship not only affected the students, but for some of the students, it also provided some stability to the family.

When looking at the five emergent themes, these themes have a connection with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for student motivation. From self-actualization to esteem, all the way down to the most basic needs –air, water, food, shelter – the POY2W internship was able to connect on multiple levels of the hierarchy. As a result, students indicated: physiological needs were met, increased social and emotional development, bonds with positive adult figures, greater self-esteem and resilience, and a capacity for self-actualization.

The UC Davis School of Education, Center for Community Partnerships, conducted ethnography research aimed at studyingthe cultural experiences and skill development of young people involved in POY2W during the summer of 2013 at the following businesses: KW Properties, Michael’s Transportation, Sutter Solano Hospital. During this research we heard in many different ways, how young people describe the hope for something different – but they often cannot navigate personal success. We hope the ethnography analysis will inform the community investment efforts of the Vallejo Positive Youth Justice Initiative by clearing a path for collective voice and positive outcomes led by community allies for juvenile justice reform.

This article was developed by the University of California, Davis, School of Education Center for Community School Partnerships.

For more information about this article please contact:

Kindra F. Montgomery – Director of Training and Community Relations


bel Reyes – Program Director

Special Thank You To:

Dr. Ramona Bishop for the unsurpassed resolute leadership

Dr. Alana Shackelford for the community connections and vision

UCD Graduate Student IjeomaOnonuju, for youth voice field research

Putting Our Youth to Work businesses, youth and adult allies

Vallejo Positive Youth Justice Stakeholder Taskforce Members

Solano County Probation Department

Solano County Health and Social Services

The University of California Davis, Center for Community School Partnership

Sierra Health Foundation – Chet Hewitt and Matt Cervantes