Lincoln – About 20,000 Nebraska students cross a stage this time each year to receive their high school diploma. Another group of students who are less visible also attends classes and earns their diplomas in non-traditional schools operated by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Juvenile males at the Hastings Regional Center in Hastings attend the Nebraska Youth Academy. The Lincoln Regional Center’s Whitehall campus in Lincoln serves male adolescents who take classes at the Morton School. Both facilities offer high school credits to keep youth on course to graduate from their home high school.
The Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers (YRTCs) in Kearney for boys and Geneva for girls also provide credits. In addition, students may earn their diploma at the schools located on-campus, West Kearney High School or Geneva North High School.
“Continuing a youth’s educational progress is critical to their rehabilitation,” said DHHS CEO Courtney Phillips. “Education is one of the most important assets a youth can earn while under our care. Their future success may very well hinge on not only earning a diploma, but also any encouragement we can instill in them to continue their education or to prepare for a vocation.”
“When most youth arrive, they’re usually behind on completing their high school credits,” said John McArthur, principal at West Kearney High School. “About 50 percent have previously attended special education classes, or have a verified disability. This can result in youth acting out in school, which may lead to the reason they are here. The root of the youth’s problem can be a disability.”
First thing on arrival, their academic standing is evaluated, especially math and reading. If test scores are low, more are conducted to identify other educational gaps. A part of the youths’ treatment program is an academic plan that fits their individual needs. Their plan becomes part of the program the youth must complete.
Students at the DHHS schools study in a supportive environment where they hear the benefits of getting an education. For some students, completing their education turns into an expectation.
“On occasion, the youth have a sense of possible hopelessness to graduate on time,” said Nebraska Youth Academy Principal Craig McLey. “Once they realize that it can be accomplished, they have told me their attitudes toward their education changes because they know that we truly care about their success.”
During calendar year 2016, a total of 1,995 credits were earned by youth at the Nebraska Youth Academy, noted McLey. The youth averaged 29 credits each prior to discharge, which equates with a semester of credits. Last year at Whitehall, students earned 970 credits.
At the YRTCs, students can earn up to 90 credits each calendar year. At Geneva North High, Principal Matt Asche said 31 youth graduated in 2015 and 2016, and so far this year, four young women have receive their diploma. Four young men recently graduated from West Kearney High. Twenty-one students graduated from West Kearney in 2015 and 2016, and one earned his GED certificate.
Students and teachers like the smaller teacher-to-student ratios so students receive more individualized instruction. Their academic plans allow students to work at their pace.
Students not only study core courses like math, social studies, science and English, but also can take electives in family life skills, health, art, career education, the building trades, and business and technology. Together, classes help youth prepare for life after they leave the facility whether it be work, community college or a four-year college.
“West Kearney High School was a great opportunity to catch up and achieve my credits,” said a young man who recently graduated. “The teachers would not let me give up. I tried my hardest and stayed focused on my success. I was determined to graduate and with the help of West Kearney High School, I have achieved my goal.”
As youth near completion of their program, the DHHS schools involve vocational rehabilitation and the Department of Labor in training to prepare them for employment and continuing their education. Online college classes also are offered to jump-start the youths’ post-secondary education.
Today’s students have more challenging needs and behaviors, and the DHHS schools work proactively to evolve ahead of the curve to meet their needs, Asche said. The school environment can sometimes be challenging, but it also is very rewarding every time students complete their program and are able to leave the facility.
“That’s the time we celebrate for them,” he said. “That’s why we’re in education, because every student is important.”