Classes benefit some teens at Naselle Youth Camp

NASELLE — Some people think of them as delinquents and inmates. Principal Lisa Nelson and her staff think of the uniformed boys who attend school at the Naselle Youth Camp as students.

And recently those students have been making their teachers proud.

Since 2008, NYC students have dramatically improved passing rates on state standardized tests, with the percentage passing the writing and reading tests more than doubling by last school year. The percentage passing the math test was only 47 percent, but that’s a ninefold improvement from 5 percent in 2008.

NYC students out-performed their non-incarcerated peers statewide, 74 percent to 64 percent, on the state’s 10th-grade biology test.

Those numbers are especially remarkable given the obstacles to overcome. Fewer than 40 percent of the students read at grade-level when they arrive, Nelson said. Many have emotional disturbances or learning disorders. And teachers have little time to make a difference: The average student stays at the camp about 73 days.

That tiny window might be the only time an NYC student ever consistently attends school, Nelson said. So she and her seven-member full-time staff try to make the most of it by setting high expectations.

“We meet them where they are and take them forward. We bend to them and then try to bring them along. … We’re all they have. We have one shot to make a difference,” Nelson said.

Atere Norman, 18, of Tacoma is one of about 80 boys who attend middle school or high school at the camp. Norman, who is serving time for possession of a sawed-off rifle, was transferred there in July from Greenhill, the state’s larger juvenile facility. The very things that annoy him most about the camp — the small, quiet wilderness setting and constant, watchful attention from school staff — have helped him accomplish more in a few months than he had in several years, he said.

“I was always getting expelled. I never really stayed in high school,” Norman explained.

A professed “gangbanger,” Norman said the strong gang presence at Greenhill was a constant distraction from self-improvement. At Naselle, he has worked steadily toward a high school diploma, earning “mostly A’s” and focusing especially on math.

The teachers at Naselle “are on top of you. Really, that’s the thing that makes people want to do better. … The people want to help you, if you want to help yourself,” Norman said. “No drama is tolerated. You have to stay on your Ps and Qs.”

Classes are small — about 12 kids — and without the drugs and poverty that wreaked havoc on students’ lives on the outside.

“They’re drug- and alcohol-free. They’ve got three meals a day and a warm place to sleep. And they have to be here,” said writing instructor Dianne Bennett. She gives her students intense, targeted instruction in basic skills to prepare for the state tests.

Other teachers, such as “transition” instructor Mitzi Hunter, focus on teaching the life and personal skills the students need when they’re released.

Students at NYC must meet all the same requirements as their public school peers, though they have fewer electives and vocational training. They earn grades and are required to pass the same tests.

But in other ways, it’s not like a public school at all. When a fight suddenly broke out in the library Thursday — a once-a month occurrence, on average — a rush of adults with walkie-talkies came running from every direction to break it up. The offenders were quickly hustled away, and within moments the boys were once again at their writing lesson. The two combatants got three and five days’ suspensions but continue to do school work while out of class, Nelson said.

Discipline depends on the severity and frequency of the offense, she said. Generally “we try as much as possible to replicate public education,” Nelson said.

However, teachers have to be flexible and deeply empathetic to be successful with a student body that can be volatile and occasionally violent, Hunter said.

“They’re kids first. They made a horrible mistake that’s going to impact their lives forever, but they’re kids first, and that’s the way I’m going to treat them,” Hunter said.

In her life skills classes, Hunter tries to bolster her students’ battered confidence. “I think their study skills are fairly low. Many of them haven’t been to school for a long time, and haven’t been successful in school. Quite a few, I think they really truly have a desire to learn. That’s exciting,” she said.

Student Tyshon Vinson, 18, said his teachers built his confidence with patient instruction and sincere praise.

“They showed me, broke it down step by step. They enlightened me that I can go forward in learning. I don’t have to stop at the brick wall. I can go around it,” Vinson said.

Vinson plans to draw strength from the positive messages his Naselle teachers gave him when he leaves the camp.

“I know they’re not just saying (positive things) because they get paid to, or they have to. They’re saying it because that’s what they think about the person they’re saying it to. I’m going to remember it if I ever hit a low point again.”


Information from: The Daily News,