LIMA — Clang. Clang. Clang.
The ominous sound of the cell doors closing at the Allen County Juvenile Detention Center was disconcerting for Claire DeOrio when she heard them for the first time. In the spring of 2015, the then-sophomore at Bluffton University was beginning a new mentoring program that would help the residents of the facility with literacy.
“When you first start you get a tour of the facility and the biggest thing I had to adjust to was the slamming of the doors and hearing of the locks,” DeOrio said. “It is not something you are used to hearing but other than that it was pretty comfy.”
Fast-forward a year and a half and DeOrio, who is finishing her degree in education with student teaching in the fall, has left behind a successful legacy after establishing the foundation of a one-on-one program that benefits both the detention center and Bluffton University.
Some call her a pioneer, but DeOrio saw her self as a guinea pig.
Like most education majors, DeOrio did her early field experience at the elementary school her freshman year. It gives the students a chance to see if they want to teach by getting a first-hand look. DeOrio was wavering if she wanted to pursue a career in the teaching profession.
Enter Diane Neal, assistant professor of education coordinator of field experiences at Bluffton University, and Amy Freeman, Mentoring 4 Reading Achievement program director.
For nearly two decades, Bluffton has run a Mentoring for Reading Achievement program for elementary schools and this was the first time they reached out to the detention center so in January 2015 the pair came together to discuss the plan.
“We were talking one day and realized we should investigate using the juvenile detention population as a placement,” said Neal, who along with Bluffton University and the detention center, Freeman’s organization, the Ohio Coalition for the Education of Children with Disabilities that receives federal funding to pilot the one-on-one reading mentoring project. “We are not aware of any other project like this in the U.S.”
Freeman added that one of the reasons the plan came into place was that she went to see the juvenile court judge in Summit County to see if they wanted to use some of the mentoring materials they were using for the JDC and the realized this could work in their own backyard.
Freeman and Neal approached DeOrio about the opportunity to work at the detention center and she jumped at the chance despite it having no framework or structure to deal with the residents, or as DeOrio prefers, students at JDC.
“The education department knew I was questioning that I actually wanted to get a teaching license,” DeOrio said. “They knew I had an interest in working with troubled youth or in a social work kind of atmosphere rather than teaching.”
Neal added this was a good catalyst for DeOrio to get her teaching license.
DeOrio had no reservations about tackling this new challenge and made it part of her independent study curriculum.
“I have always wanted to reach out to troubled youth because I feel like I was so blessed,” said DeOrio, who grew up in Lima and was 2014 Lima Senior graduate. “I had parents that supported me. Going into college I didn’t know failing was an option. I didn’t know you could fail a class. That wasn’t a thing for me. I had to succeed.
“They [students] didn’t have what I had. They didn’t have the environment that was going to lead them to thrive and succeed in their academics and so for me if I could help this person thrive and succeed and give them another opportunity to reach their goals and even like make goals to reach than that is going to make a world of difference in my life and theirs and they deserve it.”
Entering Uncharted Territory
And while she went in gung-ho DeOrio also had to face the harsh reality of working at the detention center and all that entailed.
“I was not nervous,” DeOrio said. “I didn’t question it at all. I think the first time I questioned it was once everyone kind of freaked out about it and said, ‘Oh my gosh you are going to need classes to protect yourself.”
Safety was a primary concern. DeOrio would be working one-on-one with these students in a classroom off the main gymnasium. Intially DeOrio was shadowed but it soon became her and the student alone.
With an iron-will determination, DeOrio began the process of teaching and establishing relationships.
All agree that the first semester DeOrio began there were a lot of issues to iron out. One was to train incoming volunteers about detention center procedure that DeOrio said they started after her first semester.
“I was pretty new and the first one to send and so I was the person that said, ‘Next time you should try this,’” DeOrio said. “In the juvenile detention center when you are by yourself technically you should have all the things that every other CO has or teacher would have and I didn’t so I didn’t necessarily have a name tag or walkie talkie or what codes meant or the rules and regulations.”
After the first few weeks, DeOrio was equipped with the necessary equipment including a necklace that alerted the guards if anything went awry. With DeOrio paving the way, the protocol became the norm for all Bluffton volunteers who were properly trained and equipped with the essential gear and proper identifications.
Once the procedural work was out of the way, DeOrio focused on her primary goal and that was to help the detention center students. At the onset DeOrio worked with the intervention specialist who helped her with getting adjusted to life in the detention center who also provided a list of students who were potential candidates who would work with her
Because the JDC students were not tested for reading levels, DeOrio trained herself to test for this as well in order to gauge where to start.
“I was trained to find their reading levels and start them off on a program that would improve their reading level and fluency,” DeOrio said. “It took time.”
But about three weeks in DeOrio said she felt comfortable. One of the reasons it took a short amount of time was because it was similar to the same programs she was tested on such as timed reading and comprehension. In the first two weeks she observed the classroom setting before beginning the one-on-one meetings.
Freeman said that because this was a new endeavor, the process was not a well-tuned machine and they put their trust in DeOrio’s abilities.
Freeman and Neal both monitored DeOrio’s early progress and changes were made throughout the year to make things run more smoothly.
“We had great support from the JDC,” Freeman said. “Berlin Carroll is the juvenile court administrator and his assistant and they are making sure this program is going to help everyone.”
How Do You Feel?
Despite her demure stature, DeOrio commands people’s attention and she would immediately lay down the guidelines for the detention center students she mentored but she also added her own personal touch with one simple question, “How do you feel?”
Because many of the detention center students rarely get to hear that phrase, DeOrio made it a priority to relay to the student on more than just a professional level as well as finding out a little about the individual.
“It was just shocking to me that I was the only person, maybe twice a week when he would meet with me, that I was only person that would ask him that. It is really great to build that relationship.”
While most were cooperative there were three at the beginning who did not want help.
“I’m here to help you and if you don’t want that then you can go back to the classroom and that is fine,” she said. “The funny thing they were back the last semester I was there so I think they were a little more willing to work then too.”
After the first semester she began to see progress and success. DeOrio describes a 13-year-old student who did not have the capacity to read letters out of order of the alphabet and was unable to pronounce sounds of the letters he was shown.
“I had to develop special lessons for him because that is not what I expected to walk into,” DeOrio said. “By the end of the semester he could sound out small words and that was my biggest accomplishment of my first semester.”
DeOrio success stories begin to mount and helped an 18-year-old juvenile, who struggled with comprehension, to attain his GED diploma and allow him to expand his future options.
“It is also really nice that they develop a sense of trust with you,” DeOrio said. “I started taking criminal justice classes because of this experience because I wanted to understand that kind of side of it. I had already taken all these education classes but none from the criminal justice viewpoint so I gained that.”
What she learned from her criminal justice classes is that many of the youths ended up in the JDC for lack of establishing positive relationships with parents, peers or mentors. DeOrio added that she was willing to step into the mentorship roll.
System Takes Shape
By the second semester, two students joined DeOrio in some one-on-one sessions. The duo signed up because they had phonics class and needed field study work and opted for the JDC rather than the traditional elementary school route.
“It is a big difference working with a 14-year-old than a 6-year-old,” DeOrio said. “And you are not necessarily going to do phonics like I did with the 13-year-old. You are more likely going to be doing comprehension and fluency. It is the same program just different reading levels.”
Because she had laid out the framework for the program, she soon began to assume more responsibilities and duties.
With two semesters of success under its belt, Bluffton began to send more classes and opened up the volunteer work to students other than education majors such as students studying “Modern Issues in America.”
With the additional Bluffton students attending, DeOrio was asked to put together the lessons and she was given the title “resource coordinator.” Because the noneducation majors did not know how to make a lesson plan, DeOrio assembled binders for each student with a twice a week check on progress.
“I was in charge of making them [the binders] and assisting them in anyway they needed,” DeOrio said. “I was there to make sure they were comfortable and assimilate to the culture. I think they caught on really fast and it went really, really well.”
Neal said a number of Bluffton students are receptive to the idea of being reading mentors.
“It gets them out of their comfort zone a little bit and it is appropriate for social work and criminal justice majors.”
One adjustment DeOrio admits is checking in with her earlier detention center students and asking if they were good with the new mentors. A portion were not and DeOrio worked with them in building a relationship with the new mentors.
“I felt like once all the other mentors started going I could be that “how do you feel” person and say, ‘How is your mentoring going and do you like what this person does,” DeOrio said.
Another adjustment was adapting to different approaches to teaching by her mentors and DeOrio said she accepted that there is more than one way to teach.
This past spring her time at the detention center came to an end and she sees it as bittersweet. DeOrio is proud of what she has accomplished but is sad to give up her coordinating duties and working with the detention center youth.
“I think we were all pretty sad that it is ending,” DeOrio said. “I really wanted to student-teach there but there is not an intervention specialist for me to follow so I couldn’t do my clinical process. Also technically it is not a real school.”
DeOrio, after she finishes her student teaching obligations, wants to re-enter the world of juvenile detention.
Because of her efforts and the success of the program, Neal said the go-ahead has been given to build an additional facility at the detention center.
Freeman said the Allen County Educational Service Center was supportive of the efforts of DeOrio and is looking to expand.
“Clair worked with the teachers who are employees of the Allen County ESC and the ESC is very supportive of this partnership and is enhancing what their relationship is with Bluffton and the JDC to see how they can run it more smoothly.”
Neal added this program has been extremely advantageous to Bluffton students.
“First of all we try to look for authentic field experiences for our teacher ed candidates, meaning real-life situations. We want them to use the knowledge and skills they learn in the classroom with real children so that is advantageous right there,” Neal said.
In a quotation from Carroll that appeared in the Bluffton Alumni magazine, “It has been a tremendous success for us frankly. We’ve seen improvements in reading levels, comprehension scores … anytime the Bluffton University students are in the building they bring a different perspective into the building, and our youth are able to relate to them because they are younger, and it definitely improves attitudes and behavior.”
Reach Jose Nogueras at 567-242-0468 or on Twitter @JoseNogueras1.