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Education behind bars: How youth learn at the RI Training School

The Rhode Island Training School. (WJAR)
The Rhode Island Training School. (WJAR)
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As a father, pastor, and author, Michael Caparrelli lives each day knowing his life could have turned out much differently.

"I started to steal very young, lie, cheat, and manipulate," Caparrelli said.

At Cranston High School West in the 1990s, he spent more time causing trouble in school than he spent learning.

"At 17 years old, me and two other friends robbed a Providence police car. It was an unmarked car, but we didn't know that it was until we actually broke into the vehicle and saw the radio equipment," Caparrelli said.

The three friends stole the car and burglarized an East Providence home before they were caught.

"We were surrounded by state troopers on the highway and shipped to the Rhode Island detention center, the Training School," Caparrelli said.

There, the 17-year-old would take classes and develop a relationship with Pastor Mike Kropman that would change his life.

"When I got out of the training school, I joined the church right away and I never looked back," Caparrelli said.

Caparrelli was able to stay out of major trouble and graduate from Cranston West.

But not every resident of the juvenile jail is able to do that.

Recidivism has stayed around 20 percent over the last several years, state data shows. Comparatively, recidivism at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) in Cranston is around 50 percent.

The detention center's Executive Director, Larome Myrick, hopes to improve that statistic.

"Whether they're here for one day, 1,000 days, or anything in between, our job is to send back a better, more educated kid, the same thing a traditional school does," Myrick said.

Rhode Island KIDS COUNT found the average age of youth in the Training School was 16 years in 2018. Their reading and math comprehension were at a fifth-grade level, the organization reports.

School social worker Tracy Bolano said she works closely with local education agencies during transitional periods.

"We work with those districts to make sure that the kids are meeting their requirements while they're here," Bolano explained. "In terms of transition, we stay in contact with those districts, let them know when the kid is going to be released and coming back to their care, so that we can help put a plan in place.”

The Training School offers a variety of core classes and extra-curricular opportunities, such as book clubs and a farming program. The educational program employs 19 staff members: 13 teachers, one administrator (principal/special education director), one teacher assistant, one substitute teacher, one grants coordinator and one implementation aide.

"We have a captive audience here," Bolano said of the youth. "When our kids are here, even if they've had a lot of academic difficulties or trouble in school in the past, we have kids here who don't have that stress in the current moment or all of those negative outside influences."

Through dozens of pages of data provided by the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), an NBC 10 analysis found out of the youth taught at the Training School between 2011 and 2019, roughly one-third were not enrolled or attending school prior to entry or were attending educational programming at the Training School. Roughly 25 percent of residents had been attending an alternative school and 20 percent were attending Providence Public Schools prior to entry. The remaining percentage was attending various public, charter and religious schools across southern New England.

The Training School came under scrutiny in 2017 after riots and leadership changes. Myrick, an Ohio native who worked his way up the correctional system, became executive director in 2018.

"One thing I love about the juvenile system is no kid is going to be here forever," Myrick said. "We continue to do what will make these kid transition back into their community sooner, faster with as few barriers as possible."

The number of youths the Training School served has declined drastically over the last decade. Between 2009 and 2018, the annual total number of youths in the care and custody at any point during the year declined from 894 to 283, Rhode Island KIDS COUNT reports. Some of the decline is due to the cap that was placed on the population at the Training School in July 2008 or 148 males and 12 females on any given day. The population further declined by 68 percent between 2009 and 2018, KIDS COUNT reports.

"As we've gotten smaller, we've been able to target our interventions even more closely," Bolano said. "It's something that we've always taken real pride in, getting to know kids' individual unique needs and strengths."

Caparrelli, the pastor, recently published "Penning Your Pain Into Parables," a guidebook for those recovering from trauma and addiction. He is now pursuing his doctorate.

The Rhode Island native told NBC 10 if someone told him 25 years ago what his future would hold, he would not believe them.

"I could have landed in an institution for the rest of my life, whether it be a mental hospital or prison," Caparrelli said. "I'm very humbled and very grateful. I do pinch myself and I thank God that I'm here in my 40s and I'm living a positive life."

Other data provided by DCYF details previous living arrangements prior to adjudication. In 2011, approximately 53 percent of residents were living at home and 29 percent living out-of-home, which could mean in foster care, a group home, psychiatric hospitalization or other places. 18 percent were listed as “other,” which means the youth were homeless, staying with a friend, living out of state, or they were previously held at the Training School before recidivating.

Through the years, the number of residents living at home prior to adjudication steadily declined, reaching 33 percent in November 2019. The number of youth living out-of-home increased, peaking at 40 percent in 2015, and 34 percent in 2019. The number of youths' living arrangements listed as "other" also increased, reaching 33 percent in 2019.

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