School settles in at former youth home
By Susan Frick Carlman firstname.lastname@example.org October 16, 2012 3:38PM
DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin addresses the opening of the Joseph Academy in the former DuPage County Juvenile Detention Center in Wheaton. | Submitted
Updated: November 18, 2012 6:18AM
The former DuPage County Juvenile Detention Center is under utilized no more. Several organizations call the old youth home their home now.
Already accommodating the county’s Emergency Operations Center and the sheriff’s adult work release program, the building is also the latest location of Joseph Academy, a private therapeutic day school for students referred by their home school districts for extra attention due to their mental health needs, learning disabilities and other health issues.
“We’re working very closely with the probation officers,” said Diane Schorr, the school’s administrator, who said many of the program’s students have spent time in residential treatment or institutional detention after running afoul of the law.
County officials in July inked a four-year lease for 14,000 square feet of the building. Joseph Academy is paying $140,000 annually under the terms of the agreement.
Michael Schack, the nonprofit organization’s founder and executive director, said he had fielded inquiries about adding a fourth site to the existing programs in Des Plaines, Melrose Park and Hometown — including calls from administrators in Naperville.
“They said, ‘We really need you in DuPage. When can you come out here?’” said Schack, conducting a tour shortly before the official opening of the school Tuesday.
Six students are attending the school so far, and another couple have been referred, Schack said. Most of the enrollees are from DuPage County. A staff of six is on site, and four more are poised to come over from the organization’s other schools when needed.
“Our plan is to start with a modest number of 20 kids, and 10 teachers here for our first year,” Schack said.
It was at the annual St. Patrick’s Day party hosted by DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin where he was told part of the former detention center for youth offenders had been sitting vacant for several months.
“I said, ‘Whoa! Could we rent that?’” Schack said.
The economics of the idea added up, he said. In an era when funding shortages are causing inpatient treatment centers to close their doors, agencies that serve troubled youth are turning to day programs and extended-day treatment to meet the need. While the annual cost of residential programs can run as high as $120,000, the model practiced by the 30-year-old academy costs $36,000-$40,000 yearly, Schack said. A portion of the bill is footed by each student’s home school district.
In some ways, the light-filled facility isn’t much different from any other school. It has a room for shop class, a lunch room, library, gym and traditional classrooms. But there is also a crisis intervention room and a sensory room, tailored to accommodate the concerns of the school’s specialized population.
Cronin hailed the work done by Schack and his wife, who 30 years ago sold their home and used the proceeds to establish their nonprofit group, aiming to give attention to kids at risk of spending their lives behind bars.
“Extra attention that, I think, has been instrumental in saving hundreds, if not thousands, of lives,” Cronin said.
The discontinuation of the building’s old use was controversial. County Board members caught substantial criticism last November when a slim majority of them voted to outsource the residential treatment program.
Opened in 1999 with a capacity of 92, the facility typically was accommodating fewer than half that many kids.
Juvenile offenders from DuPage now are detained instead at Kane County’s regional Juvenile Justice Center near St. Charles.
A July news release circulated by the county reported that the move reduced the county’s yearly expense for treatment of youth offenders by almost $1.3 million, and saved taxpayers more than $500,000.
Opposed by numerous representatives of the law enforcement and judicial communities, as well as the two dozen youth home employees whose jobs would be eliminated, the closure also drew protest marches outside the county complex before the board’s 10-8 vote last November took away funding to keep the facility open.
“There was a lot of resistance to it,” County Board member Bob Larsen said, acknowledging that the opponents had valid concerns. But he emphasized that prevention is considered far preferable to detention.