How a Poetry Contest for Juveniles Drew 1,000+ Entries

The reform of Washington, D.C.’s formerly atrocious juvenile justice system has been no stranger to controversy. But one thing that most parties agree on is that the educational services offered to juveniles in the secure facility have turned around 180 degrees.

The before picture: teachers that the public school system couldn’t legally get rid of were basically sentenced to Oak Hill, the juvenile lockup for D.C., which is actually a half hour away in Laurel, Md. Students would share some unkind words with teachers, get kicked out of class, and have the afternoon off.

After: The See Forever Foundation put a branch of its Maya Angelou Academy in New Beginnings, the facility that replaced Oak Hill in 2009. It is a nonprofit charter school that uses theme-based, modular units that are designed to interest older teens but also align with the common core standards.

The school connects to another Maya Angelo Academy in the city, where many of the students are placed upon release from the New Beginnings facility.

David Domenici, who founded See Forever with James Forman and served as the academy’s principal in the juvenile facility during its formative years, now leads a new organization called the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings. The aim is to refine and expand on those modular units and export them to juvenile facilities in states that join the CEEAS consortium.

Domenici incubated the organization at the University of Maryland, and took it into independent standing in January. The staff of four – Domenici, Christy Sampson-Kelly, Kat Crawford and Hailly Korman – now operates with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and annual contributions from each of the states in the consortium (right now, there are 12).

Maya Angelou had a poetry unit in place, and April was National Poetry Month, so Domenici decided to make a national contest centered around the poetry curriculum one of CEEAS’ first ventures. The idea was that facilities would do a month-long poetry curriculum, and then youths would submit their work for the contest.

The process took several steps:

February: Chris Sampson-Kelly, a former teacher and CEEAS’ director of practitioner support, spent about 30 percent of her time at Maya Angelou, taking its poetry unit and creating the one-month version of it, as well as a seven-day version tailored to pre-adjudication detention centers.

March: Kat Crawford, CEEAS’ technology director who also has a background in drama, spent half her time developing the tech side of the unit. CEEAS makes its units available in a few downloadable formats:

  • Online on a Wiki site for the contest. wiki site
  • SMARTBoard and ActivBoard (the two primary software programs that run on the large, ‘digital whiteboards’ that now dominate classrooms across the country).
  • MS Word and PDF formats.

In addition, CEEAS sponsored online teacher forums, weekly updates, and webcasts.

Crawford spent the latter part of March troubleshooting the Wiki and Poetry Unit platforms. By April, facilities had received the units, and the contest was underway. The teachers overseeing the new poetry units could submit individual entries, using online software called Jot-Form, which would create a unique entry in CEEAS’ contest database.

Teachers at participating facilities had until early May to enter their students’ work in the contest. Domenici guessed that a couple hundred of entries would come in, and most of them would come right at the deadline, since most of the teachers had only just received the poetry unit.

He was way off.

“The week before it was going to end, we had about a hundred submissions,” Domenici said. With seven days left, a “couple hundred” had come in.

Then, a deluge. Hundreds of submissions were uploaded to the JotForm database each day in the last week of the competition. By May 3, the contest deadline, 1,033 entries had been posted to the database.

Domenici figured that a small crew of volunteer readers could whittle the pile down to the best 50 for his lead judges:

  • Chelsea Clinton, former first daughter and civil rights activist
  • R. Dwayne Betts, a poet and author who spent time in adult prison for a crime he committed as a juvenile
  • Bryonn Bain, spoken word poet and author of Lyrics from Lockdown
  • Poet, youth advocate and lecturer John S. Blake

The volunteer readers got it down to about 250, and “the three of us [he, Crawford and Sampson-Kelly] had to get that down to 50,” he said.  The lead judges took it from there.

The lessons learned here, for anyone interested in a similar venture:

  • There is absolutely an interest in artistic expression and competition among juveniles. And one need only read through the Third, Second and First Place winners to see that this contest produced intense, well-written material.
  • It’s better to have a large group of volunteers for reading, and not need them.  Plan for more entries than you actually expect.
  • JotForm is good…to a point.  If you’re going to use it, make sure you have people to help with the grunt work.

“We might end up using a slightly more sophisticated database,” Domenici said. “The process became very mechanical, it’s just doing incredibly rote stuff. We’ll know next time…to pay a smart twenty-something to sort the poems.”

John Kelly is the editor-in-chief of The Imprint

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