By John McGreevy, TJJD Communications
At secure facilities and halfway houses throughout TJJD, members of the education staff consistently strive to identify opportunities for the youth to acquire valuable trades, enhancing their prospects for better futures.
While the youths receive a fundamental high school education, TJJD schools also provide vocational classes and workshops of various types.
Depending on the facility, classes in horticulture, welding, construction, business information management, and other subjects aim to prepare the youths for entry into the job market. Some of these vocational classes allow the youths to obtain certificates from the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER), the Texas Nursery and Landscaping Association and a certification for food-handling from ServSafe.
At the Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg, horticulture science and construction technology courses have gained popularity among the youths.
Arturo Guerrero oversees the construction technology classes at Evins. With more than 43 years of teaching experience and now in his sixth year with TJJD, he guides the youths in operating the various workstations and machinery in his workshop.
He instructs them in the operation of machines such as a table saw, drill press, band saw, surface planer, and belt and disc sander.
“I teach them about the industry, about mass production,” he said. “When you go out in the world and you’re working for a company, nobody is making one individual project.”
Guerrero emphasizes safety and patience above all. "Industrial technology has many areas we can cover," he said. "We don't teach them how to be experts in construction, but we expose them to different types of machinery."
“Later this school year, we’ll be making cutting boards,” Guerrero continued. “They’ll strip, they’ll glue, we’ll use the planer, and everybody will work in different stations. Before they do that, they’ll learn about the machines. They’ll learn about safety and how to respect the power equipment.”
He's been pleased with positive response from the youths to the chance to learn these new skills.
"They look forward to the classes," Guerrero said. "They enjoy having a goal and a sense of accomplishment. The look on their faces when they grasp something, when they realize they've learned something, is rewarding. It's great to see how excited they get. They're genuinely joyful, believe it or not. That's gratifying for me as an instructor."
Tim Hinds serves as the horticultural science teacher at Evins. With 32 years of teaching experience, including teaching at the South Texas Independent School District (ST-ISD) and 11 years at TJJD, he credits his current position to “passing the required Texas Education Agency examination and helping my grandfather on his farm every summer since I was a kid.”
“Learning by doing is much better for these kids,” he said. “It sinks in much better than just having them answer a question on a piece of paper.”
In his classes, the youths will learn to properly and safely operate mowers, weed-eaters, and a garden tiller and they’ll earn an endorsement from the Texas Nursery and Landscaping Association.
“We’ll grow flowers and transplant them,” Hinds said. “We might transplant some trees.”
Coming soon, a vegetable garden.
“The kids will be able to eat whatever we grow,” Hinds said. “They’re super excited about that. It tastes different when you pick it fresh.”
He says he’s often asked why he went from teaching over-achieving students at ST-ISD to come to TJJD.
“My reply has always been that I came from a very dysfunctional family and I was not an angel during my teen years,” he said.
Both the horticulture and construction classes are held every school day, with six classes conducted each day. For safety and security reasons, classes are kept small, accommodating approximately four to six youths.
The construction classes will enable some students to earn an NCCER Core Curriculum certificate. Guerrero said this certification can, in some cases, result in an additional income of up to $50 per week with some jobs . Across TJJD, youths earned more than 90 such certificates this year.
“We’re doing our best to give these kids some alternatives to what they were doing before,” said Steve van Nest, the principal at Evins. “Their behavior and their choices that got them here are what we’re trying to correct and give them a different way to go. The more we can educate them in the classroom and get them either a diploma or a GED, or with this program and get them working with their hands .”
As teachers everywhere will tell you, it’s not always easy. Getting young people to work patiently and as a team rarely happens overnight,” said Hinds. “But we stay with it and we get them to work together, to help each other out.”
For an opportunity to put their burgeoning skills to the test, Hinds and the youths didn’t need to go very far.
“None of the trees on campus have been pruned since before COVID,” Hinds said, “so we’ve been pruning all week long. It didn’t take long for the kids to start working together as a unit. They were working safely and joking with each other and helping each other out . “
Guerrero agrees about the challenges of giving lessons in patience and teamwork, but says the approach to working this out is built right into the tasks at hand.
“Woodworking teaches the kids patience and learning from a mistake,” he said. “It’s a form of anger management.”
“We’re trying to help these kids,” van Nest said. “When these kids reenter their community, we want them to have a fresh outlook and some skills that they can use to go down a different path. We’re trying to change the way they think and help them change their lives for the better. You see these kids working hard and learning something and realizing what they could become. “