The teenage detainees at the Juvenile Justice Center in Fresno don’t have a lot of choices – certainly not about what time they wake up to begin their day with stretches and push-ups, nor how long they can linger over breakfast before they go to classes, nor, on weekends, whether they clean up their cells.
But once a month, 10 of them choose to discuss literature.
In the tiled, well-stocked library of the court school, the students sit around desks set up conference-room style, as teachers Pamela McGee and Michelle Trevino lead them through discussions of theme and plot. This is the Worsley School Book Club, a new program to bring poetry and prose to an otherwise uninspiring place.
The additional voluntary studying on a Saturday morning might be unthinkable to their peers outside of the center’s walls. To the members of the book club, it’s a reprieve from days that are not just regimented and boring, but sometimes dangerous.
“This is a calm place. There are no people arguing, just people sharing opinions,” John said. “There’s peace, and when we disagree, it’s all constructive. It’s relaxing here.”
His classmate, Jesse, agrees: “You don’t have to worry about a fight behind you. We don’t have to watch our backs.”
“We’re just here to talk about books,” McGee said.
McGee is a 30-year veteran of the Fresno County Office of Education, which oversees the school. She founded the book club along with Trevino, the Worsley librarian, through a grant from the American Library Association, which provides books and material for 10 students per club.
The Fresno club’s latest book was “March Book Three,” an autobiographical account of the civil rights marches of the 1960s based on Rep. John Lewis’ personal experiences. The books offered at the club have revolved around themes of social justice and aim to evoke empathy from the readers.
The teenagers had mixed reactions to “March.” Kyrin, who graduated from the Worsley School at 16, said the graphic novel’s format was hard to read. But in general, he said, he likes books with a social justice bent or ones rooted in history like “The Help” or “The Hate U Give.” Described by his teachers as a voracious reader, Kyrin also enjoyed a novel the club read a few months prior called “All-American Boys,” which revolves around racism and police brutality following the arrest of an African-American teenager.
“I’m locked up right now, so I know how it felt,” he said.
The Bee does not identify minor offenders, but has been given permission by the Juvenile Justice Center and the students’ parents to refer to the members of the book club by their first names.
Emily liked the illustration in “March,” but said she preferred a book they’d previously read called “Stuck in Neutral,” which tells the story of a young man bound to his wheelchair and unable to communicate with the world.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m not understood, either,” she said.
The teens get to keep the copies of the books they receive through the book club. Those, along with books they check out from the library or borrow from their teachers are some of the only objects they are allowed to take back to their pods.
They offer a chance to be somewhere else, at least in spirit, for a few hours. The fantasy genre is particularly appealing for the escapism it provides, and thriller writer James Patterson is a favorite for two club members, Jeremiah and John.
The students poring over their journals look like they could be at any high school in the county but for the reminders of the corrective nature of the center: the kids’ plain clothes in coordinating colors, the locked doors at every turn, a corrections officer who picks up a journal to leaf through a student’s work. There’s also the discipline: a report last year criticized the detainment side of the facility for its use of pepper spray on minors.
High marks for school
But the same report singled out the Worsley School for its “positive curriculum and classroom experience,” as well as the school’s proactive approach to transitioning students back into their home districts once they left the center.
“We know that once a student leaves classes, they go back to their pods, where they live,” Principal Marisa Gamboa said. “But while they’re here, we want them to be students, and to know that if they finish school here, their certificate will be worth just as much as anyone else’s.”
The population of the school is always in flux, but around 25 percent of students are female, and grades range from middle to high school. The average sentence on the commitment side of the facility is between three and 12 months, according to Gamboa.
These are longer stays than in the past, McGee said, partly due to a national downward trend of arrests of minors, and fewer sentences overall for lower-level offenses. The teenagers who do end up here have committed property or personal crimes, according to McGee, and some are repeat offenders.
It’s a bittersweet situation for McGee and Trevino. The club’s founding members were chosen for their good behavior and keen interest in literature, but the teachers also looked for students who had longer sentences.
“You have the time to improve yourself and you’re away from some of the influences in your life,” Trevino said. “We hope that you’ll leave a little better than when you came in.”
“We wanted to build a community,” McGee said. “We take them as they are, assume good intentions, believe that they can do it and want to learn.”
Work to be done
The result is that book club is a privilege that its members don’t take lightly. With only 10 spots available, each student has to be recommended to the club by a teacher and remain in good standing to keep his or her spot.
That includes doing the writing assignments that come with the club, which some members have neglected to do and found themselves at risk of getting kicked out. When the students are tasked with writing poetry, their verses speak of wrongdoing and repentance, as well as a determination that things will get better.
“Nobody can stop me or bring me down/Say to me that I can’t do it/And I’ll prove you wrong,” Jesse wrote in a poem based on Langston Hughes’ “I, Too, America.”
English teacher Scott Bailey offers another outlet for student expression through a writing exchange program with the juvenile justice centers in Placer and Butte counties. Bailey, McGee and Trevino are all Freedom Writer teachers, meaning they’ve trained with the Freedom Writers Foundation started by Erin Gruwell, a teacher of at-risk youth made famous by the 2007 movie “Freedom Writers.”
Students like Jesse say they’ve noticed a difference in environment between the schools they left on the outside and this one.
“In other classes, I felt like, teachers don’t care, so why should I?” Jesse said. “Here they do care. But you also have to want it. That’s why I do better.”
The emphasis on writing and literacy runs concurrent to the school’s other training programs in technical fields like welding. The hope is that students will leave the center with a new skill that will help them find a job, the teachers say. A scholarship of $1,000 is available to exemplary former detainees.
“It’s still early, but we do have kids leaving the book club who understand that they can write,” McGee said. “And we tell them, you need to use that skill, however you can.”