Middlesex College Expands Program for Juvenile Detention Center Students, Making College Dreams Possible for Underserved Population

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Middlesex Juvenile Detention Center

Middlesex County Juvenile Detention Center.

Middlesex County Juvenile Detention Center residents transitioned to becoming college students through a partnership between Middlesex College and grant funds provided by the Middlesex College Foundation and the New Jersey Governor’s Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Committee that were administered by the Juvenile Justice Commission.

Developing a Collaborative Partnership with the Middlesex County Juvenile Detention Center

At the Middlesex County Juvenile Detention Center (JDC), youth who graduate from the detention center’s high school often remain in the detention center for extended periods of time without access to additional educational programming. That is why, four years ago, Middlesex College partnered with the Middlesex JDC to offer college programming to Middlesex JDC residents.

The program, now named Reaching Individual Success through Education (R.I.S.E.), began in 2017 when Alexandra Fields, professor of English and co-faculty service-learning coordinator at Middlesex College, began a service-learning partnership with the Middlesex County Juvenile Detention Center. Through a collaborative partnership with detention center educational staff, a cohort of Middlesex College students who were enrolled in English Composition II engaged in-person with JDC residents as participants learned how to research, write argumentative research-supported essays, and design collaborative final presentations of their papers.

Both Middlesex JDC residents and Middlesex College students valued this partnership and wanted it to extend beyond a single semester’s class.

Courtney Maino, a Middlesex College student in one of these service-learning classes, decided to partner with Dr. Fields to establish a Juvenile Justice Reform Club on campus to ensure that she could continue working with JDC residents even after her college class had ended. Not only did Maino become the Juvenile Justice Reform Club’s president and co-founder, but she also credits this work with giving her a renewed focus on graduating from college and finding her passion as a helping professional.

“Little did I know that this service-learning course would change how I felt about school and what I wanted to do in life,” she said. “I graduated from Middlesex College with an associate degree in Human Services/Social Work, and after I achieve my bachelor’s degree, I plan to continue my education and obtain a master’s in social work to become a clinical social worker.”

JDC Residents Become Middlesex College Students with College Foundation Support

Middlesex JDC residents also enjoyed working with the College, and residents expressed a desire to earn college credits as Middlesex College students. Consequently, during the Spring 2021 semester, the College, for the first time, was able to secure scholarship funds from the College’s foundation to support eight juvenile detention center participants in registering for English Composition I, and every student successfully completed the class.

“It helped me think about how society and our court system view me for my mistakes, and it made me think deeper and look into the real-world problems that we’re sometimes misinformed about,” said J. R., one of the program’s participants. “And the most important lesson I took away from the experience was looking into what I can do to help see the changes that I want in this world.”
A New Grant Helps Expand the Program

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, all in-person services for detention center youth were halted. In March 2021, the College received a grant from the New Jersey Governor’s Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (JJDP) Committee that is administered by the Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC). This grant has allowed the College to continue offering remote access to college courses to students in the Middlesex JDC. The funds cover all instructional costs, textbooks, and the technological needs of JDC residents enrolled in remote college classes. Additionally, the grant funds enabled the College to develop a formal peer-mentorship program between Middlesex College Juvenile Justice Reform Club students and Middlesex JDC residents. To assist county detention center youth during the pandemic, funding was provided to nonprofit and educational organizations to continue or enhance services with the understanding that many services were impacted or stopped in order to prevent the virus from spreading. (AG Grewal Highlights Successful Program to Support County Juvenile Detention Centers During Public Health Emergency – New Jersey Office of Attorney General (njoag.gov))

These funds are made available based on the philosophy that communities have a unique understanding of their local youth populations. The JJC administers millions of dollars in state and federal grants that encourage the development and enhancement of a continuum of community-based services for at-risk, court-involved, and delinquent youth.

JDC student Q.C. has shared that through his coursework and peer-mentoring, he has come to realize that “Being incarcerated doesn’t define who you are; you can be anything that you choose to be in life. During this college class I learned that no matter who I am or where I am, I can still be successful in life.”

Middlesex College Continues Developing Programming for System-Impacted Students

Students at the Middlesex JDC are currently enrolled in their second semester of college, now taking English Composition II with Dr. Fields. In July, a new cohort of students began taking English Composition I, and although grant funding for this program ends September 30, 2021, the College is actively seeking new funds, including potential funds from JJC/JJDP Committee, in order to continue the program and advance its goal of creating more high-quality college programming for system-impacted students.

For more information, contact Alexandra Fields at afields@middlesexcc.edu