Empowering Justice-Involved Youth Through Education: An Interview with HSE Teachers Toni Foster and Nandhana Sajeev

Since the 1967 founding of the Court Employment Project (CEP), CASES’ programs have been dedicated to diverting young people from jail and prison and to promoting education and employment. Education and employment function as key areas of need and opportunity for young people who have become involved in the criminal justice system, with researchers identifying both as critical risk and protective factors in avoiding recidivism.

Toni Foster and Nandhana (Nanee) Sajeev teach High School Equivalency (HSE) classes at CASES’ Central Harlem office. In December 2018, CASES hosted an HSE graduation celebrating 30 students from our Central Harlem and Downtown Brooklyn services. The graduation was planned by Education, Career, and Enrichment Services team member Christian Huie with the assistance of one of CASES’ HSE students. In this interview, Toni and Nanee discuss their experiences working with CASES’ youth and the challenges these students must navigate to attain their educational goals.

Can you explain the HSE process, from a student starting the program to finishing it?

NS:
Any young person age 17-24 who is enrolled in a CASES program is eligible to join our HSE classes. Many students get into the HSE program through enrollment in the Court Employment Project or JAG NY. Most students start at different places—not everyone comes in ready for the readiness test, which is the qualifying exam we do at CASES. Once they pass the readiness test, they go on to take the real HSE exam. Most of our students need a bit more time to prepare, so they’ll be with us for a while.

TF:
The average is about seven months, if they consistently attend class.

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

TF:
Whenever students show me they learned something in any way. We went to the Drawing Center on Tuesday, and Nanee prepared by giving a little introduction to analyzing art. It was so nice to hear them using words like “texture” in a setting that was new for most of them. We were like, “Oh my gosh, they’re doing so well!”

NS:
They were so perceptive and analytical and really used their words to describe what they were trying to see. So that was really cool, to see them go from not really wanting to go on the field trip to actually having a lot of fun.

TF:
That’s another rewarding part—seeing a change in them when they completely disagree with you on something and they come around at the end. That’s so great. It’s also the emotional stuff, too. We spend so much time with them. Classes are from 10 AM-1 PM, and in those three hours a lot can happen. A big part of our job is also helping them grow as people, not just educationally, because we want them to go out into the community and be independent and successful. Yes, we help them get their diplomas, but we also want them to develop an understanding of how to be their best selves in a variety of contexts.

What is something about the HSE program at CASES that people wouldn’t necessarily know about?

TF:
I think it’s like I said, we support holistic growth as well as academic growth. So even if they don’t get their diploma here, they’ll be just a little more adult and will have an understanding of what is attainable for them.

NS:
Each one of our students is dealing with a lot of different barriers that keeps them from fulfilling their full potential. A lot of the times it will be family stuff or even very basic but critical things like needing food. No student has just one thing. Most of our students have some kind of anxiety and have been told on some level that they do not belong in the classroom because they won’t succeed. It can be really hard to get them to believe that they belong here and that they will succeed, getting their resistance to come down.

TF:
Mental health. A lot of people, teachers included, are under the impression that if a young person just somehow “pulls it together” and gets focused, then they’ll make it. That’s not how anything has ever worked. With educational trauma, it’s because people have had negative experiences in school—it’s not just that some students hate math. When they have to engage with math again after some sort of educational trauma, their chest may get tight or they may have other negative physical responses. People tend to think that students like ours are immature, but educational trauma is real. Even working adults will feel this sort of anxiety if you put math in front of them, because it’s a real response. I just wish people would give students a bigger benefit of the doubt when these things scare and stress them out. For our students, a lot of the time the emotional response will be anger, and they may not know what’s causing the anger or how to control what they’re feeling.

For example, we have a student who is battling depression. We have to mark him absent for so many days. This is tough because we can’t necessarily excuse him for all of the absences because we’re required to report his attendance to the court. But he’s also severely depressed and has social anxiety, which is why he doesn’t come to school. On paper, he looks like a delinquent student, but that’s not the case.

Can you share a success story?

TF:
Recently we had a student who is very, very smart. And because of that, he had a hard time in the classroom sitting down, being quiet, and not distracting everyone. On top of that he’s very charismatic and has a natural leadership charm, so people followed whatever he was doing. If he is the doing work, everyone is doing work today. If he is not doing work, no one is working. So, we worked with Maceo June [Harlem Director of Education, Career, and Enrichment Services] here in the Harlem office, who was like a father figure to him, to help him learn how to readjust his energy and focus during class. He passed the HSE exam and now works at a hospital. He’s already been promoted since then. We knew he was going to pass the test, but if he didn’t learn to focus and channel his energy, his future opportunities were going to be severely limited. Not everybody ends up getting a diploma, but once we achieve that emotional growth, that means something positive can happen later. Whatever that is. Maybe a diploma isn’t what they need right now, but they’ll grow into whoever it is they are supposed to be and make better independent choices for themselves.

 

CASES offers HSE classes at our offices in Central Harlem and Downtown Brooklyn to young people ages 17-24, including those enrolled in our Court Employment Project and Jobs for America’s Graduates New York. To learn more about these services or to make a referral, please email info@cases.org.