PAnews.com, Port Arthur, Texas

March 15, 2013

Local group wants vacant juvenile facility

Dan Bledsoe
The Port Arthur News

PORT ARTHUR — A handful of Southeast Texans, including former congressman Nick Lampson, have their sights set on the future use of the vacant Al Price State Juvenile Correctional Facility along U.S. Highway 69 as a school for at-risk, high school students.

The group is seeking help from State Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, who filed House Bill 1968 that would have the state donate the property to Jefferson County in hopes it would then work with an as yet to be formed non-profit organization.

In a letter to Deshotel, Antioch Missionary Baptist Church Pastor Dr. John R. Adolph of Beaumont, former Port Arthur school district administrator LeRoy Saleme, Jefferson County Precinct 6 Justice of the Peace Ransom “Duce” Jones, Linda G. Clark, a master social worker, Houston charter school operator Steve Roberts, Jr., and Lampson lay out their reasoning for alternative education.

“The impetus for the creation of this type of boarding school was the idea that the educational opportunities for many at risk students are hindered by lack of adequate motivation from family and/or school, by neighborhood risks, and distractions that divert attention from educational pursuits,” the letter states. “We believe that our youth will achieve at a higher rate if they receive concentrated attention to their strengths and less focus on their weaknesses.”

The letter says that nearly 1.3 million students nationwide do not graduate from high school each year and that in the 2011-12 school year, 26,901 students in Texas dropped out and entered in the workforce with low-paying, short-term jobs.

While the Texas Education Agency has yet to release dropout figures for 2011-12, its most recent figures show that Jefferson County has more than three times the statewide percentage of dropouts.

“We further believe that a boarding school could remove the dangerous distractions of the negative social interactions often found in many neighborhoods from which at risk youth hail and provide its students with added support and activities during the after-school hours when traditional public schools send students home,” the letter reads.

The local group, proposing what it calls the Southeast Texas Boarding and Preparatory School, hopes to utilize the site’s existing capacity of 312 beds along with an administration building, school buildings, vocational buildings, and cafeteria all surrounded by a high-security perimeter fence.

Deshotel filed HB 1968 three weeks after receiving the group’s Feb. 7 letter.

However, the bill makes no mention of an at-risk program or any other specific use of the former juvenile facility. As currently worded, the bill limits use of the property only “for a purpose that benefits the public interest of the state.”

The measure also lacks a Senate companion bill.

If passed, HB 1968, which is currently awaiting a hearing before the House Committee on Corrections, would have the state donate the property to the county no later than Jan. 31, 2014.

Lampson said the group’s efforts to date “literally evolved in conversations over coffee.”

“The idea was talked about over the last year with several people randomly, including Rep. Joe Deshotel and the six people who signed the letter we ultimately sent,” Lampson said. “We met at the end of last year and decided to try to develop an idea to address the unused, publicly owned property and the idea of lowering high dropout rates. We are in the process of developing that plan.”

Lampson said the group has discussed a number of options and ideas but “as of now, there is no specific timeframe for anything.”

The group is primarily focused on finding out if the facility can be turned over and how to work with the Jefferson County Commissioners’ Court, if and when, it becomes appropriate, Lampson said.

In the more than 18 months since the 50-acre site was closed, the state has spent nearly $400,000 for maintenance and upkeep, said Jim Hurley, spokesman for the Texas Department of Juvenile Justice.

“That’s a lot of taxpayers’ dollars,” Saleme said. “How are you saving money when you have an asset like that?”

Saleme, who also worked for the Beaumont school district after retiring from PAISD, has served as a consultant for the past 10 years including advising on juvenile residential facilities.

“If you go back and look at the numbers, there’s a big difference between the ninth and 10th grades,” he said.

Factors leading to a marked decrease in enrollment include the eligible age to drop out, a student’s socio-economic environment and an increased level of educational courses taught, he said.

“The ninth grade is critical,” Saleme said.

An alternative school like the one the group is proposing would help divert students who might otherwise be incarcerated while also offering trade learning that a student might not otherwise get, Saleme said.

“It has a lot of potential but, like a lot of things, it takes a lot of money,” he said.

Jones, whose office deals with truancy issues, said the proposed school should not be limited in scope.

“I don’t want people to think that a charter school is just for at-risk kids,” Jones said. “A charter school should just be a regular school where you can come and get a good education.”

The Al Price facility, named after the former area state representative and longtime juvenile justice advocate, was one of three units closed in 2011. The facility in Crockett also sits idle while the third, the Ron Johnson Unit II, was deeded to Brown County, Hurley said.

The state worked diligently to retain and possibly relocate the approximately 200 local employees whose positions were eliminated, he said.

“We have many people interested and working toward making the school a reality; all of whom have been prominent in their fields,” Lampson said. “My role will be that of one of the six citizens who believe that we can make a difference.”