WALLA WALLA — Since 1998 Donna Coffeen has taught some of Walla Walla’s most vulnerable children at the Juvenile Justice Center.
Children who may have fled abusive homes and gotten into trouble with the law, or who may have looked for comfort in drugs or alcohol, or who may have found gang life irresistible.
For 17 years, Coffeen has been a rock for disenfranchised youths. She provides an “island of sanity in a sea of insanity,” as one student described her small classroom down the hall from the 18-bed detention facility.
The program, operated by Educational Service District 123, keeps kids ranging from 12-18 years old learning while they are incarcerated at the JJC.
It is offered year-round, and the days are organized similarly to a regular school, with separate periods for things like language arts, mathematics and physical education.
But that is where the similarity to a normal school ends — and it’s not just the color-coded jumpsuits and standard-issue Velcro shoes that set the JJC school apart.
“Donna was able to look past the shadows and see that a student was really bright,” said Justine Jernee, a former student of Coffeen’s. “She was able to see what other people couldn’t see in us, or even what we weren’t able to see in ourselves. A lot of people, me included, had grown up being told that we’re stupid. She was able to show us that no, we’re not.”
Jernee, now 28 and a real estate agent in College Place, first ended up in the JJC at age 13 after running away from home and stealing clothes out of a car. But she ended up liking the program so much, she returned voluntarily — dressing down into a jumpsuit each day — and completed her eighth-grade year at JJC.
“Often times everyone was working on something completely different,” Jernee said. “Donna was able to help us individually instead of addressing us in front of the entire class.”
After leaving the JJC, Jernee attended a boarding school similar to Prescott’s Jubilee Leadership Academy called Project Patch in Idaho before moving to Arkansas with her family. She moved back to Washington after high school and passed the GED high school degree equivalency test at Walla Walla Community College in 2005.
Although she left Coffeen’s program long ago, the two remain close to this day.
“She has been, other than my own mother, has been the one constant in my life,” Jernee said of Coffeen. “If I could (make a) mold of her or replicate her, she would be the teacher in every classroom.”
“It’s not that we do anything magical here,” Coffeen said. “One teacher, all day long, with a small group, quiet, we pay attention to their emotional needs — in my opinion it’s the ideal situation to stabilize people who are unstable.”
Because her students range in age and ability level, many have behavioral problems, and are in class for only an average of 12 days at a time, the lesson plans have to be fluid and adaptable to each student.
“I don’t necessarily have any records, I don’t necessarily know their background,” Coffeen said. “We have kids who walk in when school starts that I’ve never seen before and I don’t know anything about them, so I have to figure out what’s going to work and what doesn’t work.”
So to make the transition easier for new students, and provide incentive for good behavior, Coffeen has a very clear reward program.
Earn enough points for displaying good effort and attitude and work without creating distractions, and you get a reward at the end of the week like watching a movie.
“I’m a psychology minor, and I didn’t really think (a point system) was a really good idea in the beginning,” Coffeen said, “but I realized with this population, I don’t have time to form a relationship ... and a lot of these kids don’t know how to behave in school.
“Some of them haven’t been in school for a year or two, and when they are (back in school) they get kicked out in 20 minutes, so I’ve got to have it so it’s pretty clear what’s acceptable and what isn’t.”
And while math is heavily individualized simply because of the nature of the subject, Coffeen still teaches language arts and reading as a class.
By playing books on tape, she is able to accommodate students with different abilities, from those who may not be able to read at all, to those who have mastered the basics.
“If they’re a second-grade reader, their job is to try to follow along and maybe pick up some of the vocabulary,” Coffeen said. “Obviously for a high school student, I’m expecting them to pick up some insight and some higher-order thinking.”
Coffeen also picks books that help students learn about more than just reading or literature.
On Thursday, students read a passage from Summer of My German Soldier, a story about a 12-year-old girl who forms a relationship with an escaped German POW during World War II. The story covers three topics at once.
There’s the obvious: history and literature, but the story also covers life and parenting skills, as the main character is often beaten by her father — a situation Coffeen knows some of her students may be familiar with.
For a time Coffeen said she would avoid books that had sensitive topics like Summer of My German Soldier — and she gave her students plenty of warning before a particularly brutal passage on Thursday — but, “I have learned that some of these kids don’t know what normal and OK is,” she said. “I think it’s a discussion that somebody needs to have with them, and if it gets to be me, then it gets to be me.
In addition to the reading curriculum, the JJC also maintains a small library of books targeted to teenagers, and because most inmates’ diversions are very limited — they don’t get Internet access or to watch television, for example — reading becomes a way to escape.
“They read a lot in their rooms, which is very cool,” Coffeen said. “One of the best things about this school is they almost always leave reading better than when they came in. And more interested in reading.
“The more you read — and there’s no TV out there, nothing really that exciting to do — their book is their salvation, really,” she said. “I get kids saying, ‘Teach me to read, as fast as you can.’”
It can be hard to define success at a place like the JJC, where inmates transfer in and out of the program, but many see their reading skills improve dramatically while in the program, Coffeen said.
Despite the short time many students are incarcerated at the JJC, Coffeen said she still builds relationships with some of her students.
“Sometimes I want to take them home with me and be their mom too, but my husband said at the very beginning of this job, ‘You can either be their mother or teacher, but you can’t do both,’” Coffeen said.