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School focuses on kids others gave up on

by Merrie Leininger

The students at Jacobsen High School call their teachers sir or ma’am, march through the halls in single file and act as the school’s janitors.

Where is this school and how do you get your kids into it? Well, wait a minute. There’s one other thing – all the students are inmates of China Spring Youth Camp, a minimum-security jail for juvenile delinquents with a 6-month stay.

The camp, which is nine miles west of Gardnerville, now has about 41 inmates and they all attend Jacobsen, regardless of their classroom status when they were on the outside. The school is under the umbrella of Douglas County School District.

Three teachers, Burr Otto, English and social studies, Don Luikart, math and science, and Rob Parks, special education, work with teacher’s aide Joni Wilson and administrator Roy Casey.

They work year-round with the students – many of whose regular teachers gave up on them long ago, or who gave up on teachers long ago.

Luikart, who taught for 14 years at Douglas High School and Rite of Passage, said he tries to relate his lessons to real life.

“I try to add humor and use real life examples instead of something to just keep them busy,” he said. “Because of the low numbers, it is easy to have a good idea of what they are capable of doing. It is a real individualized program.”

He said he tries to focus on things he knows will be useful to the students. When they study biology, he focuses on physical anatomy and especially diet.

“So they can take care of themselves,” he said.

Luikart said he also tries to do fieldwork and has taken the students on trips to Yosemite to identify tree and animal species.

Rob Parks said about 20 to 25 percent of the students at the camp are learning disabled or emotionally handicapped in some way, but they are not generally pulled out of classes with other students except when individual reading and writing needs are addressed.

Parks taught for four years at DHS before going to work at Jacobsen five years ago.

“At the high school, I was working with the same group of special ed students, but it was hard to get to know the kids because they were doing the things that got these kids here, but these kids got caught,” Parks said. “There, they were hiding behind masks. Here, it is easier to form a relationship with the kids.”

He said he enjoys sharing in the little successes the Jacobsen students achieve every day.

“They make some big gains here. These are kids who in their regular schools were just not going and here they have to go every day,” Parks said.

Parks said the camp is better than some parents in that the students are given certain expectations and one hour each night is set aside for homework.

“We also have the support of the camp. They have to have a B or better to get privileges such as going home on weekends. Our hope is they take the success they tasted here and continue it on,” said Parks.

However, Casey said, information from interviews after the boys are released shows it doesn’t always work that way.

“For some of these kids, it is the last step in education,” Casey said. “So, we have three goals. One, we want them to get their diploma. Two, some of them are 17 years old with no credits, so the possibility of getting a diploma is nil. Then we help them study for the GED and take them to the testing at Western Nevada Community College. Three, if they have their GED, we enroll them in the adult education program. It is essentially the same program with one less credit. They still have to pass the proficiency and, if they do that, they will get an adult ed diploma.”

When students come in, they are tested with a computer program to assess their strengths and weaknesses, an important tool because while the students can be from 13 to 18 years old, they could be anywhere on the scale academically. A personal plan is written for the student and he is continually assessed during his stay.

Casey said there will be some challenges to the school when Aurora Pines, the girls’ section of the camp, is established.

“We can’t have the boys and girls in class at the same time. By that time, there will be a renovated dorm for the new classes and a state-of-the-art science lab. We also will add two new teachers,” Casey said. “But we can’t duplicate the technology, so we’ll see how it goes.”

Classes are held from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. in a building across from the main office and the boys’ dorm. It has three classrooms, a computer lab and P.E. is held every day at 9 a.m. in the gym next door. A branch of the Douglas County Public Library sits next to the classrooms. Its contents are controlled by Douglas County librarians.

“The library was like a dungeon environment before the Douglas County library took it over. They got a grant for about $7,000 for books and have spent many hours going through everything we had. Today, there is a set of encyclopedias for every classroom and one in the library. We are working on an accelerated reading program like at Pau-Wa-Lu Middle School. Some of these kids have never read a book for enjoyment before,” Casey said.

Any time improvements are made to the school, the students are involved. The room that is now the library was created by tearing down some walls, Casey said. The students also do all the maintenance work and are given occupational education to learn about the different aspects of the job.

Career information is an important aspect of the school.

“We try to get them to turn it in like a job so they are thinking about professional appearance and presentation,” he said.

The students learn keyboarding and programs such as spreadsheet and database and culinary arts. The construction tech students get both high school and college credit through WNCC. These programs are supported by a Carl Perkins grant of more than $20,000, Casey said.

“Quite frankly, many of these kids had quit before they ever came here,” Casey said. “But they get turned on by the technology part. Until a few years ago, we only had a few old Apple (computers). Now we have computers throughout the school that are all networked.”

He said within a year, the school will have Internet access.

Burr Otto’s culinary arts class fills up quicker than any other, he said. The students get excited about learning about real job opportunities.

At the end of each six-week course, he takes them on a trip to Harrah’s hotel and casino. The students see every level of food preparation for all the hotel’s restaurants from the arrival of the food to the head chef’s job.

“We’ve managed to place some students in food services. It has good, steady paying jobs. We just placed one student at Carson Valley Inn. We are trying to take it to the next level,” Otto said.

The students work in the camp’s kitchen and help the cooks prepare meals and clean. Their final assignment is each student has to plan a romantic dinner and creatively prepare a menu.

“I think the kids have to be taught a skill. It offers them more than the possibility of a fast food restaurant. The objective is to open their eyes to the big picture,” Otto said.