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New Learning and Career Development Options for Youth in State Custody

NASHVILLE, Tenn.— Tennessee youth placed into the custody of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services for delinquent behavior now have new options for learning and career development to prepare for a successful next chapter in life.

An innovative mix of online and in-person advanced education programs is now available to youth at three contracted juvenile justice residential treatment facilities who have earned a High School Equivalency (HSE) credential to begin advanced education through partnerships with Bethel University and the Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) statewide network. Depending on the options chosen by young men and women participating in the higher education programs, they can earn college credit toward an associate degree or begin a vocational career track by the time they leave the youth treatment facilities and return to their communities.

At present, 11 youth residents at treatment facilities operated by Wayne Halfway House are enrolled in classes either at Bethel or TCAT campuses. Ten of the students are residents of Mountain View Academy in Dandridge. With more residents of Tennessee youth treatment centers having just earned high school diplomas in May, advanced education enrollment is expected to rise in the fall. A total of 44 youth at Wayne Halfway House facilities earned high school diplomas or passed the HiSET exam this fiscal year.

The advanced education partnerships have the potential to improve lives, reduce recidivism and provide Tennessee with a model for reforming re-entry of youth adjudicated delinquent for committing criminal offenses. The opportunity was sparked by the mutual interests of the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) and Wayne Halfway House, each of whom is committed to the state’s mission of rehabilitating delinquent youth with education and job skills options. As a strategic approach to better prepare youth who will be rejoining their communities, DCS and Wayne Halfway House focused on creating advanced education affiliations. The education partnerships have been operational since early 2021.

“There is nothing greater we can do as a department than help these young men and women become positive and productive members of our communities. By providing them with the opportunity to continue their education through learning a trade skill or post-secondary education, we help set them up for successful and fulfilling lives when they exit state custody and reach adulthood,” Commissioner Jennifer Nichols said.

“We are big believers that the mistake you made as a young person that landed you in our care does not have to define who you are,” said Jason Crews, president of Wayne Halfway House, a Wayne County-based provider that operates Hollis Residential Treatment Center in Columbia, Mountain View Academy in Dandridge, Standing Tall in Nashville, and Hollis Academy in Waynesboro. “All of these young people have the opportunity to commit to a more purposeful future. We emphasize that pathway to them every day and urge that they pursue the education, skills and career training programs that are available within and outside our facilities. They have the ability to leave their mistakes behind and have a successful next chapter in life.”

Through its nationally recognized College of Professional Studies (CPS), Bethel offers classes to earn college credit toward an associate degree. The courses are five weeks each and the program requires the completion of 60 credit hours. Funding for the program is available through student aid and Bethel’s ability to cover any remaining costs through scholarships and grants. Graduating students can enter the workforce free of any student debt.

“Part of our role is to be a servant where we can reach out to offer help and encouragement to those who need it,” said Bethel University President Walter Butler. “There are people who can be very productive in our society and they just need help sometimes. We’re very honored to be able to partner with the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services to help deliver a positive impact on the lives of these young people.”

Getting the students acclimated to interacting with their peers and instructors is a key to building a good start, said Dr. Mandy Fisher, Bethel Dean of Academic Studies.

“The students learn to communicate with other students and higher education personnel to establish effective communication opportunities for future employment,” she said. “I have witnessed the students reach out to their professors through email communication to discuss remediation areas. These signs of communication are showing me these students want to learn and do better for themselves. If a student has the will to learn, I have the will to help them learn.”

Tennessee’s TCAT program offers an array of vocational education programs across Tennessee. The Crump TCAT has a specialty in industrial electricity that it has made available to Hollis Academy residents since many of the program’s core courses can be transferred to other programs across the TCAT system. Because Hollis Academy is a staff-secured facility (unlike Mountain View, which is a hardware-secured facility), youth residents have more freedom to attend the Crump TCAT campus with a staff escort. They can participate in field training projects to help wire large industrial, commercial, residential, and institutional building projects. If a Hollis resident completes the industrial electricity program at TCAT Crump he or she would be prepared for employment as an electrician.

Crews believes that the advanced education program has the potential to become a more established initiative and grow across Tennessee’s network of providers that offer services to delinquent youth.

“If we can continue to show these kids what success looks like and how with some focus, determination and hard work they can achieve for themselves, then I am confident that many more of them will choose it as the right path,” he said. “If we do that, we can help turn around more lives and livelihoods that is good for Tennessee families and communities.”