The Music Man: Steven Angel uses drumming to teach literacy…scientists say there’s no reason to believe it should work.
JOSÉ XUNCAX FIRST LANDED IN JAIL at 13 for armed robbery. Since then, he’s been in and out of the system, as he calls it, six times. Now, at 15, tall, muscled, with close-cropped brown hair and a scar over his left eye, he’s serving six months for another robbery. He lives at Camp Mendenhall, a juvenile-detention facility tucked between the mountains at the northern edge of Los Angeles County.
School never meant much to José, and he stopped going entirely after probation officers showed up in his classroom to execute a warrant. When he arrived at the camp, he was, by his own account, functionally illiterate. He asked others to write letters to his girlfriend. But most of the 90 or so fellow campers were in the same boat. According to Norberto Zaragoza, a tall, heavyset probation officer who helps run Camp Mendenhall, reading levels among the inmates generally range from about the second to the fourth grade. The average age is 16. “It’s low, very low,” he says.
The social ills of illiteracy and crime in America are bound together so tightly that it’s difficult to consider one without the other. In study after study, the reading ability of incarcerated youth has been shown to be abysmal. One widely cited study found it to be five grade levels below average.
Michael Krezmien, assistant professor of education at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has studied reading levels at juvenile-detention centers across several mid-Atlantic states. “You have a large group who are just fundamentally different,” he says. Some kids, he says, can’t even read the word cat. In one recent study, he found 60 percent of those behind bars were in the bottom 20 percent of readers. Not a single kid scored in the top 10 percent. For decades, reformers have argued that teaching reading skills is one of the most powerful methods of crime prevention.
But it’s also one of the most difficult. The kids in Camp Mendenhall, along with the 2,000 or so others in Los Angeles County’s network of juvenile jails, are among the toughest to teach. Many have already passed through a series of well-intentioned efforts—charter schools, bilingual education, after-school programs, special-education classes—and can still barely read. By the time they wind up in one of the county’s 22 juvenile-detention centers, they are launched on a course that has few exits. More than 70 percent of minors who spend time in detention in California are rearrested within two years.