David Domenici, Headmaster of the School of Hard Knocks
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because somewhere along the line, juvenile justice took a sharp turn from rehabilitation to punishment.
It’s a cold March morning in the nation’s capital. My fingers are stiff, and in the end, useless as I fumble to open the door to David Domenici’s battered 1992 Honda Civic. But with a sturdy shove and then a yank, the wiry 50-year-old reassures me that it’s not me. We’re headed less than a mile away, so Domenici can show me where he used to work.
“It was vile,” he says, nodding to the remnants of a juvenile detention center. Inside, he takes me to a stale, moldering complex where he used to teach the lockup’s student body, kids as young as 13 and as old as 21. In 2009, after allegations of abuse and decrepit conditions, a judge closed the facility. But in a new detention hall just down the road, named New Beginnings, Domenici has managed to build a model school for young inmates. On the day I visit, the classrooms are decorated with colorful murals, encouraging slogans and pictures of grinning recent grads. Teachers and security officers greet the tattooed scholars with warm handshakes and hugs. The ambience is downright optimistic. “You never would have seen anything close to this before,” Domenici says.
The question that remains, will we see others like it?
Each year, the U.S. incarcerates more than 200,000 youthful offenders, housed in more than 700 juvenile detention centers across the country. It’s not a pretty picture. “Students come out of the juvenile justice system in worse shape than when they entered,” writes Steve Suitts, vice president of the Southern Education Foundation, a nonprofit think tank in Atlanta. By most accounts, the majority of these facilities have warped into warehouses of neglect, churning out kids without giving them much, if any, of an education. Less than 15 percent of this population will graduate high school, according to a 2014 report that Suitt’s organization authored; about 1 in 100 will go to college.
That’s where Domenici comes in, the nation’s de facto headmaster of the school of hard knocks. After setting up the charter school in D.C. and spending 15 years in the trenches, the one-man crusader is now trying to bring structure to the entire chaotic juvenile justice education system. But the more you get to know Domenici, the more you wonder why he cares so much. A Stanford law grad, the son of a six-term Republican senator and husband to Cheryl Mills, the Clinton family’s trusted lawyer, the reticent do-gooder could certainly be anywhere but a dingy detention center. It’s a question he’s used to getting. “People always ask,” says Domenici, “‘Why the hell do you do this?’”
The landscape of correctional education is motley at best. Some states put correctional schools under the purview of local school districts, while others leave it to detention centers to coordinate curricula. “They gave us work you’d give a 7-year-old,” recalls Danzell, a 17-year-old detainee at New Beginnings, referring to the last facility where he was housed. And when he went home, his high school wouldn’t accept the credits anyway. Dorian, 18, spent much of the past two years in a residential program in another state, where, he says, they didn’t even have teachers — everything was online. Across the country, the ACLU won a lawsuit in 2010 against Los Angeles officials for failing to provide detainees in the nation’s largest juvenile probation facility with a semblance of adequate education.
The student incarcerees at Domenici’s Maya Angelou Academy inside New Beginnings have it different. When they arrive, they learn the history of the school — named, significantly, for the author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings — while a counselor learns about their backgrounds. The counselor shows each student his transcript, and together they create a tailored blueprint for the student’s education. Seventeen-year-old Chaz, for instance, hasn’t attended school since 2011, so in his case, it makes more sense to help him get his GED and acquire job-ready skills. The academy’s curriculum blends Common Core instruction, online learning and skills-based classes, like barbering or running cable. There are public speaking seminars and a debate team, and students get opportunities to express themselves through outlets like poetry.
When I arrive to see Domenici’s handiwork, several students, some security guards and an art teacher are coloring a large butterfly cutout and discussing a video they just watched about the importance of strong father figures. “When we first came in, they thought we were just a bunch of humanitarian do-gooders with no idea what we were doing,” says Tiffany Price, a Maya Angelou teacher. According to school records, the first year the school opened inside New Beginnings, 2009, 23 percent of kids were still in school or working 120 days after release. Three years later, that had risen to 50 percent, where it continues to hover.
What does all this cost? In the case of Maya Angelou, Domenici’s overhaul led to a 10 percent slash in the budget. He attributes the difference mostly to bloated administrative and staffing costs. But overall, he says, it costs about twice as much to adequately educate incarcerated students compared with those in regular public schools. Reformers argue that in the long run, the investment saves tax dollars. The global think tank RAND Corporation estimates that for every dollar put toward correctional education programs, we save $5 over the following three years by reducing recidivism. The National Academy of Sciences estimates above-average juvenile detention education could save communities between $2 million and $3 million per student over the next decade.
Still, some would say that investing in correctional education is tantamount to throwing good money after bad. Taxpayer dollars should focus on keeping kids out of detention in the first place, says David LaBahn, president of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. Though LaBahn says Domenici’s ideas are worthy, he argues that investing in public school is a better bet. “We want the juvenile system to work,” he says. “The question is, how far do you go to get that system to work?”
Domenici has been grappling with his own questions of social justice since childhood. While these days he opts for sneakers and pleated slacks sans belt, Domenici’s white-shoe background gives him access to rarified D.C. circles — and money. It also allowed him that why-can’t-I-do-this attitude that often comes with a life of privilege. “I was a white guy with a Stanford law degree and a dad who was a senator; I was going to be able to raise money,” he says. It doesn’t hurt that he’s married to Cheryl Mills, who became a familiar face on TV when she defended Bill Clinton during his impeachment trial, and served as Hillary’s right hand at the State Department.
That doesn’t sit well with some in the communities that Domenici works with. Every person in a jumpsuit at New Beginnings, at least when I visit, has a brown face, while Domenici and many of the other faculty are white. That creates an unsettling power dynamic, says LaMarr Shields, who was brought into Maya Angelou Academy to train staff on culturally responsive teaching. “A lot of these individuals from different backgrounds don’t fully understand the roles poverty and racism play” in delinquency, Shields says. Of the more than 50,000 kids who are locked away at any given time, 40 percent have special needs, most are poor and dark-skinned, and many come from broken homes and rough neighborhoods.
That’s a far cry from Domenici’s own upbringing. Growing up one of eight children in the suburbs of New Mexico, and then D.C., Domenici earned near-perfect grades and played lots of sports (the father of two still has some street cred on the b-ball court). It was books by writers like Taylor Branch and James Baldwin that fed his growing interest in class equality. But it wasn’t until after college that he first started working with inner-city kids, through a mentorship program at his Wall Street investment banking job. “[The kids] did it because they got free cookies, and we did it because it made us feel like decent human beings,” says Domenici. Years later, while working as a corporate lawyer, Domenici took it to another level when he decided to cash out his 401(k) to buy a pizza parlor so he could employ previously incarcerated teenagers — with the stipulation they agree to tutoring. The pizza was crap, but the experience solidified Domenici’s new career path.
After realizing that many of his employees weren’t even in school, Domenici stepped off the corporate ladder completely in 1997, and partnered with fellow lawyer James Forman to start a charter school for court-involved kids. They had $50,000 and a cramped, crappy town house. Five months later, Maya Angelou opened its doors to 20 students. Today, it serves around 450 on three campuses.
Now, Domenici is trying to scale up. A few years ago, he established the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings, which provides state agencies and private institutions a kind of tool kit — teacher trainings, curricula and logistical support — for educating juvenile detainees. To date, he and his handful of staff have helped redesign more than 40 correctional schools. This summer, he hosted the second annual tech workshop, which attracted teachers from 19 facilities. And he recently helped the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs take control from local school districts and open charter schools in its facilities.
Utah’s state juvenile system is one of Domenici’s evangelists. It offers detainees at least one post-high school course, such as construction, and helps kids transitioning out obtain vocational permits for things like handling food or operating forklifts. Last year, it created an art exhibit in which inmates painted donated sneakers to illustrate the idea of walking in an incarcerated youth’s shoes. “We would never have done something like that,” says Travis Cook, a specialist with the state’s Office of Education.
All that is great, but Domenici says that sweeping change won’t happen until the federal government holds states accountable by creating and enforcing certain baseline requirements. That, he concedes, is an uphill battle since incarcerated youth aren’t exactly a powerful constituency. Then again, Domenici says he has never questioned the cost or value of helping these young people. He also says he could afford a new car if he wanted one, he just doesn’t care that much. As for why he does it all? “I don’t have a good answer.”