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Careers for Incarcerated Girls: Cleaning the Toilet

This is a slight rewrite of an opinion piece I published in the Register-Guard last week. I'm interested in establishing a space for documenting the Oregon Department of Education's treatment of incarcerated youth, especially girls (since that's the school I teach at). I hope to get more sunshine on this hidden and highly institutionalized matter by using this site.
Equal Expectations for At-risk Girls, Please

Ben Sharvy

I have been a teacher at Three Lakes High School since 2011. Three Lakes is located inside the Oak Creek correctional facility, the only state correctional facility for girls. I live in Eugene.

The Oregon Department of Education (ODE) believes a career-related learning experience for girls is cleaning the toilet.

The high school where I teach puts credits on transcripts for mowing the lawn and weeding, and for a class called "Janitorial." Riverdale, it ain't. It is Three Lakes High School, located inside Oregon's only correctional facility for girls. Located in Albany, it locks up young women from across the state.

Incarcerated youth need high expectations. Think of it as supply-and-demand. In the proper order of things, parents teach kids to believe in themselves. The kids receive high expectations from their school, but also from friends and family. A low-quality school is a problem, but there are fail-safes in other parts of the child's life.

But, what if families don't teach their children to fulfill their potential\? The most marginalized girls in our state have experienced a shortage of high expectations. So, the demand--the value and the need--is great. When the agencies in their lives have low expectations, there's no backup.

All schools in state-run juvenile correctional facilities have ODE as their school district. Here is what my students' school looks like. I have taught at it for years:

No accountability regarding state rules on the awarding of credits.
No accountability regarding state rules on standards. Work-experience credits are supposed to connect with "academic content and career-related learning." Janitor class doesn't cut it.
No accountability for following rules on highly-qualified teachers.
Students with learning disabilities have no special education teacher, help outside class, or aides in class.

Normally, there is an equal right to redress of grievances. Not here. ODE exempts itself from its own rules of accountability. The procedure for taking complaints about a school district to the Deputy Superintendent of Instruction is withdrawn when ODE is the school district. I know, because I've tried.

A complaint about ODE practices is investigated by the officials responsible for those practices. This is fair, because bureaucrats everywhere have a track record of being honest about their own competence.

Boys can earn credit for work experience too. Those ODE schools, such as at MacLaren and Hillcrest correctional facilities, offer work experience in plumbing, carpentry, welding, fire fighting, and veterinary care. One of my students recently described her work-experience credits, as "sweeping and mopping....and busy work pulling weeds."

To be clear, there isn't anything wrong with teenagers doing yardwork or cleaning (but, do boys mop equally\?). There is something wrong with the Oregon Department of Education claiming such "classes" are aligned with standards in career and technical education.

The deeper you go, the sillier it gets. Students can earn one credit from studying algebra. They can earn unlimited credit from the study of mopping.

There is something wrong with the state holding districts to standards it doesn't apply to itself.

Some pundit (I'm scared it was a Republican) coined a great phrase: "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

I love my students. They are the best teachers of teachers, because they care the most that you believe in them. At-risk girls are the strongest, most resilient people you will ever meet. As with all kids, believing in their abilities helps them achieve their dreams. They deserve better than the soft bigotry of earning credit by cleaning toilets.

Great article... 25.Aug.2015 22:45


Have you tried to contact any women's organizations, for instance here:


This is a non-profit. Right in Portland. There are many women's advocacy groups you might reach out to.

It's terrible to see this kind of neglect and discrimination at this level.