SNOQUALMIE — Every day when teacher Heather Schopen goes to work at the Echo Glen Children’s Center, she shuttles between the wildly divergent math needs of her students — helping one with first grade arithmetic while another tries to conquer high-school algebra — and all of it happening at the same time, in the same classroom.

Schopen teaches at a juvenile detention center for children serving time for committing felony crimes — assault, burglary, murder, manslaughter, arson.

Four out of five students have mental-health or substance-abuse issues and struggle to control their emotions. About half have learning disabilities and are many grade levels behind.

It’s hard to imagine a more difficult place to teach.

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Yet changes in the juvenile justice system and in the way education is funded are making things harder at Echo Glen and two other long-term juvenile facilities for felons 21 and younger, state officials say.

This year, the state Superintendent’s Office asked for a boost in funding for the 2019-21 biennium to educate incarcerated youth. That request died in the Legislature. State officials acknowledge it’s a political challenge to carve out millions in extra state money to spend on children convicted of crimes.

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Echo Glen currently has nine teachers for about 86 students. Class size varies, from a handful of students up to 20. Teachers say they don’t feel safe when they have to teach more than 12 kids in a classroom, because they feel they have to spend time managing safety and behavior. But that arrangement is now common.

The institution had planned for 109 students this year, but fewer juveniles are being sentenced. At the same time, Issaquah teachers — including Echo Glen’s — are getting a big bump in pay, a factor not taken into account in the facility’s funding formula.

The offenders who do get sentenced to Echo Glen now have often done more serious crimes than in the past — and have more complex learning and behavioral problems, too.

Yet “there’s no way to continue the current quantity of staffing” next year, said Echo Glen’s principal, LaShae Lee. “It’s likely class size will increase.”

At the same time, substitutes can’t be found when teachers call in sick, leading to class cancellations. Some days, kids simply watch movies. There is no teacher trained to teach English Language Learners, even though up to one-fifth of students don’t speak much English.

“It’s an overwhelmingly spiraling-down system,” said Jennifer Zipoy, the associate superintendent of Echo Glen.

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The medium/maximum security facility may represent one of the last, best chances these students have to turn their lives around and make progress toward a high-school diploma. Without an education, they’ll find it much harder to get work when they’re released, increasing the chances they’ll break the law again.

But the challenges are significant. Most of the students in the juvenile justice system have histories of trauma, poverty and homelessness, said Martin Mueller, OSPI’s assistant superintendent for engagement.

As some of the youngest wards of the state rehabilitation system, these students will all return to society one day, said Ron Thiele, superintendent of Issaquah schools, which oversees Echo Glen.

“Do you want them to come back well-educated, with a skill potentially, or do you want me to warehouse them for a year, and let bitterness grow inside them, and then release them back into the streets?” Thiele asked.

“They’re a good investment. I don’t think we should condemn them for life.”

A view of the state’s Echo Glen youth detention center near Snoqualmie Ridge. Lake Kittyprince is at the left, with the Tiger Mountain State Forest in the backround. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
A view of the state’s Echo Glen youth detention center near Snoqualmie Ridge. Lake Kittyprince is at the left, with the Tiger Mountain State Forest in the backround. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Alternatives to prison have unexpected consequences

Paradoxically, Echo Glen and the state’s two other long-term juvenile detention centers — Green Hill School in Chehalis, and Naselle Youth Camp in Southwest Washington — are having money problems because the juvenile justice system is locking up fewer young people convicted of crimes. Today, those three institutions house about 300, half the number they did a decade ago.

Lawmakers have decided to use other ways to rehabilitate young offenders. Last fall King County Executive Dow Constantine pledged $4 million to support alternatives to prison for youth who commit misdemeanor crimes.

But serious crimes still earn prison time. Juvenile boys over 16 with the most serious felonies are sent to Green Hill, while girls and younger boys go to Echo Glen; medium-security Naselle serves only boys.

Although the state revamped its education funding system as part of the McCleary settlement, the 20-year-old formula used to decide how much long-term juvenile institutions get in state money hasn’t changed. A bill that would have adjusted the formula died in committee this year.

The children at Echo Glen experienced trauma in their life — physical abuse, sexual assault, homelessness, the death of a parent — and they are “often operating from a survival space,” Zipoy said.

Their needs “are far more complex, and the national educational practices for helping students has changed, and our state hasn’t taken the time to really sit down and evaluate whether the funding formula still makes sense,” said Mueller, with OSPI.

Public schools are only in session for 180 days, but Echo Glen goes through the summer. So for each Echo Glen student to learn in a 220-day school year, the formula provides $18,370. Unlike the formula used to fund regular public schools, institutional funding doesn’t include extra money for special education students, and it doesn’t spell out how many staffers — teachers, psychologists, administrators — should be hired to serve them, Mueller said.

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The funding model that died this session took into account the high number of students in special education, and would have beefed up the number of security officers. OSPI officials say they’ll try again next year.

“It’s really frustrating to watch the resource gap widen between our kiddos and the rest of the students in the state,” said Tami Mills, a language-arts teacher at Echo Glen.

A quiet setting in the woods

When it was founded in 1967, Echo Glen Children’s Center was designed for children who committed lesser crimes; a 1972 story in The Seattle Times described its residents as “disturbed children who have been in trouble with the law.”

Then, as now, the property was unfenced, and today it resembles an aging summer camp — a series of small buildings sprawled out on a grassy, 150-acre campus near a lake. It’s surrounded by acres of second-growth forest, and has a large population of friendly resident deer. “For some of our students, it’s the first they’ve ever been outside a downtown city area,” said Lee, the principal.

The classrooms look familiar, if spartan: There are whiteboards, inspirational posters, a U.S. flag. Each room is also outfitted with a red panic button. If things get out of control, a teacher can push it, and security officers will come running.

Students are escorted from one class to another. They cannot step off the sidewalk and onto the grass, a rule meant to keep them in line.

In Schopen’s math class one day this month, 11 students worked at computers, all doing different levels of math. Two students used printed work sheets. One boy wore an orange prison jumpsuit, but the rest wore street clothes — jeans and T-shirts — a privilege earned for good behavior.

Schopen is the school’s only certified math teacher. Her students range in ability level from first grade to 12th grade. Her largest class has 20 students.

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One of her most advanced students, a teen, is working on algebra and geometry, and says he hopes to go to community college after earning a degree. It’s the second time he’s been placed in Echo Glen; he was transferred to a group home for a while, but “I made a few mistakes,” he said, “and I got sent back.”

Children in custody at the state’s Echo Glen youth detention center in Snoqualmie receive their education while incarcerated. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Children in custody at the state’s Echo Glen youth detention center in Snoqualmie receive their education while incarcerated. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

When Echo Glen had more students, and more teachers, the school grouped students by ability. Now, a child doing basic arithmetic may be sitting next to another who is ready for high school.

The school operates throughout the summer, so to give its teachers a break, Issaquah hires substitutes — and Thiele, the superintendent, says potential substitutes are shunning Echo Glen. He doesn’t know what he’ll do if he can’t find replacements.

This year, as a consequence of the McCleary funding settlement and the subsequent teachers’ union contract negotiations, Issaquah teachers received a 15% raise. They’ll get cost-of-living increases through 2022; the total four-year contract increase amounts to a 25% raise.

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Because more of Echo Glen’s budget will go to salaries, it will have to further cut its teaching staff.

Both Schopen and Mills, the language-arts teacher, have already been told they are being reassigned. Both say they love their jobs. They don’t want to teach anywhere else.

Said Mills: “My students are students — they’re just kids who need and deserve the best possible education to reach their potential.”

Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.