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Teaching Teens to Read – in Jail

Rebecca Weinstein is drawn to jobs most other educators avoid. After graduating from college in 1993, she became a teacher in a New York City homeless shelter Then she found work at a school for kids with serious behavior problems. And—in 1997—at a juvenile detention program.

None of her earlier experiences prepared her for what she would find at the Horizon Juvenile Center in New York City, one of three secure lock-ups for nine- to 15-year-olds who are awaiting trial. “Right before Christmas break, someone anonymously donated Harry Potter books for every kid inside. When I got back, one student, a 15-and-a-half-year-old boy who had killed a family member, came to class and all he could talk about was Harry Potter’s broom. It dawned on me that if the kids had books they were interested in, they’d read.”

Weinstein started bringing in books purchased with her own money: The Guinness Book of World Records; a history of crime and punishment; love poems; a rhyming dictionary. Then, one weekend, she ran into a 16-year-old former student on the street. “He told me he’d read his first book in jail.” Weinstein says.

She started researching the connection between literacy, delinquency and incarceration and discovered a deep correlation. According to a University of Maryland study, teaching a person to read is more effective in reducing recidivism than punitive punishment. “It made so much sense,” Weinstein says. “You’re 15, and you can’t read. Why would you go to school? When I sat with kids looking at the Guinness book, they’d say, ‘Miss, what’s that?’ It sometimes took them 20 minutes to read the captions, but they’d do it if they wanted to figure something out.”

Weinstein and requested permission to start a library at Horizon. “Actually, they already had a library, but it only had New Testaments, The Cross and the Switchblade, and an old G.E.D. book. Most students were not going to read these,” she says. While the administration quickly approved Weinstein’s proposal, she was told that there was no funding for the project.

“It seemed so unfair,” she says. “Adult prisons have to have a law library, but it’s not mandated that kids have books.” Weinstein’s outrage, like her optimism, is contagious. “When kids are locked up there is a moment when you can reach them, because outside distractions aren’t there. For whatever reason most of these kids missed out on reading instruction. Forty percent read below the fourth grade level and 25 percent read below a second grade level; 49 percent qualify for special ed. There is a window for these kids when they’re incarcerated.”

Weinstein has set up the non-profit Literacy for Incarcerated Teens [LIT] to establish libraries in each of the city’s youth detention programs. She is proud of the organization’s achievements. “A few days ago,” she laughs, “I saw a kid in class with his head on his desk. At first, I assumed he was sleeping, but then I looked again and saw that he was faking sleep so that he could read a book. The most exciting thing for me is to hear kids arguing about what they’ve read. I’ve seen kids tear the pages out of a book. As far as I’m concerned, if they think something in a book is worth taking, I’m delighted.”