SAN LEANDRO (KPIX 5) Statistics show that 85% of young people in juvenile hall are functionally illiterate. But they are far less likely to commit another crime if they get the kind of support that comes from this week’s Jefferson Award winner.
For the past 15 years, this week’s Jefferson Award winner Cyrus Armajani has been teaching young men aged 15 to 18 at Camp Sweeney, the Alameda County detention center for low-level offenders. For Armajani, an Alameda County library employee, teaching the ‘Write to Read’ program at the Camp quickly became not just a job, but a calling. Many of the young men that have come through Armajani’ s class have experienced significant trauma, and most of them read at just a fifth grade level. So Armajani has focused his teaching style on group discussions with the intent of improving his pupils reading comprehension and overall confidence. The soft-spoken writer and poet has also encouraged his students to write their own poetry, which he has bound into books. Armajani says he has found the experience to be transformative, not only for the students, but also the teacher.
“I feel lucky to be here,” explained Armajani. “(Because) here’s an opportunity for them to speak for themselves and say this is who (they are).”
And the young men are speaking up. On a recent visit to the Camp, Armajani shared several powerful poems with KPIX. For reasons of confidentiality, the young men themselves could not be interviewed for this story. But their words on the printed page were a powerful testament to the effectiveness of the ‘Write to Read’ program.
“When I get out,’ said the young author of one poem, “I wanna breathe out freedom.”
Another expresses regret, writing “I hear myself thinking, ‘What have I done?”
While yet another young man writes of a spiritual awakening, “I hear myself asking God for forgiveness.”
The hope is that the writing will help heal some of the young men’s emotional scars and, more practically, help prepare them for high school, college, or work after they are released. And there is no doubt Armajani knows how important his work is to these kids. Statistics have shown that 85% of young people who enter into the juvenile justice system are functionally illiterate. So Armajani’ s program is a game-changer for the incarcerated youth he works with, because the stats also show incarcerated youth are far less likely to commit another crime if they can read.
Alameda County Librarian Cindy Chadwick marvels at what Armajani has accomplished: “In a manner of weeks, (the young men) can improve six grade levels in reading comprehension.”
It’s high praise for Armajani that is echoed by County Chief Probation Officer Wendy Still.
“They socially re-engage. They become part of the community. They see themselves as part of the community,” said Still.
Armajani also stages a graduation ceremony at the end of each year of the program. His students read their own poetry and he gives them a special certificate of completion. It’s often their very first certificate of any kind, and Armajani says the small gesture rings large as an encouragement for the young men to keep going with their education.
So for empowering Camp Sweeney’s young men with literacy skills for a hopeful future, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Cyrus Armajani.