Inside the State’s Only Courtroom Classroom

A courtroom is usually the scene for a banging gavel, emotional defendants and sharp questions, but on the tenth floor of a Brooklyn courthouse, a high school class is in session.Tucked away on the southwestern corner of the Schermerhorn Street criminal courthouse is the state’s only courtroom classroom – and of the few in the country.

For the past four years, the room has been an exclusive learning center for youth with criminal records. The Screening and Treatment Enhancement Part program or STEP as it is known works towards educating young adults with rap sheets or drug related crimes. Since its inception, the program has successfully managed to graduate about 18 out of about 20 students: a rehabilitation, which helped the graduates avoid jail sentences. The aim, according to Betty Williams, one of the judges who instituted the program is to educate young adults so they don’t end up committing other crimes.

“We help them more than just pass a test,” said John Marvul, 66, the longest serving teacher of the program, who specializes in social studies. A second career for Marvul, teaching has been a longstanding dream.  After losing his 22-year old son Aaron, he knows what many of his students go through. “My son was them,” he said.  

Looking past the bookshelves and the umpteen textbooks, Marvul starts his political lecture with the Bill of Rights. He is met with sleepy and groggy groans from his students. Many are tired from supporting their families with nocturnal part time jobs.  The tiny class is usually composed of four students and participation is a legal requirement, which some tend to ignore.

“It is difficult, but it’s better than jail,” said Marvul.  

According to Mia Santiago, project director of the program, each of the students has pled guilty to a felon or crime. The court mandates them to work towards passing a General Education Development (GED) test, which gives them the equivalence of a high school diploma. Successful graduates are reported to do better than their peers. For legal reasons, students cannot offer any comment on the class.

“Kids come back and tell us what the diploma means to them and the difference it’s made,” she said. In the last week of January, two of the students graduated from the program. According to Marvul, students often come from broken homes in poorer communities from all boroughs of the city.

“Many of the kids are defiant of education because they’ve got no formal authority in their homes. Kids without fathers often lack discipline and supervision,” he said. “The rise of drug culture has also supported this downfall.” Many face drug related charges. They are tested everyday to keep them from spiraling into addiction.

“We can’t only educate them, but we also need to keep them clean,” said Shevaughna Wright, a math teacher with the program.

Wright, a 15-year veteran of the public school program and Marvul’s only teaching colleague explains that parents are usually fed up with their kids. “If one or two parents show up for anything, then that’s a lot,” she said. “They’re left to do whatever they like.” Although they have a counselor, STEP isn’t able to track progress of their graduates.  Students don’t necessarily fall back into in their old habits, but are at a risk of doing so.

The lack of funding and manpower has prevented any kind of tracking scheme. “That is a critical thing to do if our program needs to truly succeed,” said Marvul, adding that he has hope in newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio. De Blasio, who built part of his campaign to improve the education sector, added $800 million to the capital budget last Friday. The money will serve to help the public schools of the city.  Some members of the STEP program are sure that the mayor will administer changes across the board revoking the Bloomberg administration’s model.

However,  Mia Santiago, project director of the program, isn’t completely convinced.  “There is no guarantee that the money will trickle down to our program,” she said.

Money is usually spread thin to cover all public schools. A small rehabilitation program could be overlooked in such a case. The program’s uniqueness has gone unnoticed even with its success said Santiago. No one within the public school or court-mandated programs has replicated STEP’s approach to rehabilitating young adults.

Speaking about how he wants graduates to lead their lives, Marvul said, “I never want them to be embarrassed by their ability.”