Prar’jhuay, far right, played Odysseus in a skit at the MHC Education Fair.

Academic Fast Track | Fall 2011 Spotlight |

Fifteen-year-old Prar’jhuay, far right in photo, wrapped himself into the starring role of Odysseus from Homer’s Odyssey—literally and figuratively. Wearing his bed sheet toga-style, he stood in front of his peers at the Methodist Home for Children Education Fair and delivered a grinning performance of the Greek hero’s return from the Trojan War.

Prar’jhuay (pronounced prahr’-zhay) had been referred to MHC a few months earlier as a repeat juvenile offender, with a record of larceny, possession of stolen property and sporadic school attendance. But on this July morning, he was clearly enjoying a chance to recite from the ancient epic poem and pick off a few other sheet-wearing friends (playing Penelope’s suitors) with a homemade archer’s bow. Around the room, an audience watched the drama and laughed as actors fell to the floor, ivy laurels flying. Mostly teenage boys, they’d come with their own projects to compete at the annual MHC Education Fair and they’d spent a couple of months getting ready.

It’s important to note—these were summer months. While most kids their age were on vacation, group home students were still in school with on-site MHC teachers. These teens come to group homes as juvenile offenders, referred by a court counselor or judge, and they’re often behind grade level when they arrive. It’s the job of group home teachers and staff to help them catch up and shed bad habits. Standardized test scores show they’re succeeding.

Math and reading data show students improve dramatically in MHC group homes—some by multiple grade levels. Last year, one in three students performed at grade level when admitted to MHC. But by the time they were discharged, two in three were at grade level. One teen improved by eight grade levels in math and five students improved by eight or more grade levels in reading.

This kind of progress is possible because group home teachers test the teens when they arrive and then tackle strengths and weaknesses, which may be rooted in learning difficulties or behavioral problems. They’re able to work individually with the students and help with studying and homework.

The results often surprise the kids, say Shannon Tuzo, director of juvenile home services. “It’s eye opening and inspiring to them when their scores improve and they see they can do better than they thought they could. That taste of success is very motivating.”

When Prar’jhuay was discharged in August, he’d improved academically by one grade level and was earning A’s and B’s. More importantly, says teacher Lovey Sawyer, he had reversed his attitudes about school and personal responsibility. Prar’jhuay had arrived at MHC in March with a stubborn streak and an unwillingness to follow instructions or accept feedback. For a month, he flat-out refused to do his work.

“He was very smart, very capable of the work,” Sawyer says. “But he was notgoing to do it. He’d argue. He wouldn’t complete assignments. He’d just get a book out and read.”

Like all group home teens, Prar’jhuay had to earn his privileges through good behaviors and, consequently, he wasn’t allowed to go home on weekends. After about a month, when he missed his home visits, he began working. And, as he began working, he realized that he enjoyed learning. By the time he left, five months later, Prar’jhuay was tutoring other students at the group home and his younger brothers, ages 14 and 9, during home visits. He especially enjoyed history and politics, Sawyer says, and demonstrated a gift for math. “He was taking on a role of leader, giving feedback and helping others with their studying.”

These kinds of academic improvements usually dovetail with other behavioral changes, Tuzo says. The model of care used in group homes stresses personal responsibility, hard work and goal setting, and MHC extends its services with six months of follow-up care once a teen has gone home.

The lessons are sticking with Prar’jhuay, says Tiffany Powell, his mother. “Things are excellent now,” she says. “I still have to say little stuff to him, but he’s not mischievous like he used to be. He does what he needs to do. He does chores, cleans up, takes out the trash. When he and [his brothers] get together, they don’t fuss and fight. He helps them with their homework now.”

Powell still makes surprise visits at school to check up on Prar’jhuay—sometimes several times a week. She wants to make sure he doesn’t return to his old ways. “But his teachers say he’s doing good,” she says. “They don’t know why I’m checking on him. He’s fine.”

After years of fearing her son would be killed on the streets, Powell says, she finds a lot of comfort in those assurances. Prar’jhuay is looking for a part-time job now and thinking about training to become a barber, like his uncle and grandfather, or going to college. “He’s got the brain to go to college,” Powell says. “And now he’s got the mindset to go to college and to achieve.”