Six months ago, Deauntre Smith wrestled his peers on padded mats set up across the gym floor at Edmond Santa Fe High School.
Today, he struggles instead with self-identity and his future in a converted classroom on the second floor of the Oklahoma County jail.
Awaiting disposition on armed robbery and kidnapping charges, the 17-year-old said he has found redemption in the place he resisted as the bane of his youth — the classroom.
“I'm an inmate, I'm getting my diploma — when I get out it will be like I was never incarcerated,” he said. “The people who looked up to me for the wrong things, I want them to look up to me for the right things now.”
Smith is one of two dozen juveniles currently enrolled in high school at the county jail, where he has lived since he was arrested in January. While other similarly aged offenders are diverted to group homes, the juvenile justice system or sent home on probation, Smith and his podmates on the jail's 13th floor are each looking at the possibility of serious time behind bars.
In the meantime, it's back to the books — science, social studies, literature and math, to be exact. There are no elective courses or extracurricular activities here, but with an extremely balanced student-to-teacher ratio and flexibility for individualized lesson plans, high school in jail seems to be more effective than a traditional school setting for students like Smith.
Social distractions and the slow pace of public education were keeping him back, he said. Now an ace in math, he looks forward to a post-release career in accounting or law.
“My being incarcerated was a steppingstone to let me know why my life was not on track, that I need to straighten back up, and that's exactly what I'm doing,” he said. “Eventually, you are going to learn how to do the work, and once you do you're going to like it.”
Smith exemplifies why continued educational services are important for juveniles behind bars who might otherwise be dismissed as dumb or worthless, said Todd Mihalcik, one of two Oklahoma City Public School teachers responsible for the daily lessons.
Most of the juveniles at the Oklahoma County jail come from poverty or were raised in families with substance abuse problems, Mihalcik said. Many stopped taking school seriously at the fourth-grade level.
Now forced to reckon with their disposition, these kids see the value in reading American classics, understanding anatomy and learning how to divide fractions, he said. If not for a career potential, many of them volunteer for jailhouse school because they're interested in knowledge, plain and simple.
“Of all the kids I've worked with, these kids are by far the most capable,” Mihalcik said. “They're going to be out someday, and we either want them to be equipped or we want them to be turned around so they can equip themselves.”
Solace in classics
Austin Hartsell, charged with binding and robbing an Oklahoma City mother and her 18-year-old son in February, said the jailhouse school strips away distractions that kept him from excelling at Westmoore High School.
Here, it's hard to explain truancy and there are no girls to keep him sidelined. Instead, Hartsell, 17, has found solace in literary classics. “The Catcher in the Rye” is a new favorite.
“Out there, I always tried to show off and make my friends happy with me. In here, you just look forward to coming to school,” he said. “In here, I focus.”