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In jail, a school of second chances, and one of Philly's best principals

"I don't look at their crimes; I don't want to know," Deana Ramsey said. "What's in front of me are children."

Deana Ramsey, principal of the Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Center, stands in the main hallway of the facilty and speaks about their many murals and the art work that the students have helped contribute in the school.
Deana Ramsey, principal of the Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Center, stands in the main hallway of the facilty and speaks about their many murals and the art work that the students have helped contribute in the school.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Art projects line the hallways of Deana Ramsey's school, rich mosaics and colorful murals. In one classroom, students are at the edge of their seats learning about sound engineering; in another, they're tackling algebraic equations.

This is remarkable, because Ramsey's school sits inside the city's juvenile detention center, a place where pencils are counted at the end of the day to make sure none has been hidden for potential use as a weapon. There were 150 pupils at the Juvenile Justice Service Center School at 11 a.m. on a recent day, but the number can fluctuate by the hour, as young people are arrested and processed.

For Ramsey's work creating a school where children in tough situations engage in meaningful learning, knowing they are supported and respected, she and six other Philadelphia School District principals are being honored Thursday as among the city's best. They have won 2018  Lindback Awards for Distinguished Principal Leadership.

The other winners are Ted Domers, Carver High School of Engineering and Science; Dywonne Davis-Harris, Potter-Thomas Promise Academy; Jodan Floyd, AMY Northwest Middle School; John Piniat, Feltonville Arts and Sciences; Fatima Rogers, C.W. Henry Elementary; and Michael Roth, Olney Elementary.

The awards are given by the Lindback Foundation annually to recognize excellent principals. School communities nominate candidates, and district officials and foundation representatives select the winners, who each receive a $20,000 prize for their school.

Ramsey, a veteran educator, sees her school as a place of second chances.

"I don't look at their crimes; I don't want to know," she said. "What's in front of me are children."

The school educates young people 10 years old and up who are arrested and charged as juveniles with a range of crimes.

The average student remains at Ramsey's school, on 48th Street in West Philadelphia, for about a month. Some students have cycled through the school before, but many are first-timers, and arriving at a correctional facility is the most frightening experience of their lives, despite the acts they allegedly committed.

Just before they are thrown into her school, Ramsey's students are searched, then confined. They're given the sparest of places to sleep. Their street clothes are taken away, and they are issued blue uniforms in their place — plain sweatshirts or T-shirts, loose pants, and underwear that's clean but not new. Things like toilet paper are rationed.

"They're asking them a lot of questions, and the kids have no control over anything," Ramsey said. "They miss their homes, they're scared, and they're expected to go right into a classroom and learn? No."

It's up to Ramsey and her staffers — 18 teachers and seven district support staff, plus city employees deemed necessary by the prisons system — to help the students make the turn. Her teachers, she said, have a captive audience  and are skilled at building relationships quickly. And in a way, classes can be an anchor for the students.

"This is the only normal in this building," said Ramsey.

As soon as students are admitted, administrative staff use the School District's student information system to assess exactly how many credits they have. Pupils are grouped together by age, but it's typical for a teacher to have a class with students working at multiple levels and even in different subject areas. Educators rely on computerized lessons to differentiate instruction.

At the heart of it all is Ramsey, the chief cheerleader and a woman you can't say no to. It's apparent that, as a high school and college standout basketball player (Roxborough High, Brooklyn College), she played center.

"We're the glue of everything," said Ramsey.

On a recent day, she moved into a classroom where students were working on math problems, pausing to speak softly to a young man who had asked for help. As she left the room, she gave the teens a smile.

"Remember," Ramsey said, "you don't want to waste time while you're here. If you're here past 20 days, you can earn half a credit toward graduation."

She is a child of the city and its school system — Ramsey was raised in Nicetown. She thought for a while she might become an engineer, but eventually followed her mother into a Philadelphia classroom. She started her career as a teacher at Dunbar Elementary in North Philadelphia, working at several district schools and in administrative offices before becoming an assistant principal and, finally, the principal of Kinsey Elementary in West Oak Lane.

When Kinsey closed in 2013, Ramsey looked at the list of principal vacancies and zeroed in on a school that had always spoken to her: the Juvenile Justice Services Center.

"My love and passion has always been for the most vulnerable students, the ones who need us most," Ramsey said. Before she became a teacher, she worked at a facility for adjudicated youth.

She made her pitch to Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., who eventually selected her to lead the school. She hasn't looked back.

The deliberations of the judges who chose Ramsey and others for Lindback honors are private, but watch her interact with a student or engage teachers in discussion about a lesson and you know why she was chosen.

Inside Ramsey's school, even with her unique population, the principal has "fully articulated the vision for what high school should be," said Christina Grant, the assistant superintendent who supervises Ramsey. "I don't know another principal who lives and breathes her school the way she does."

That means that there are special events in school, like empowerment days for women and men, a highly-competitive door decorating contest, presentations from various museums.

"If they're doing something in other schools, I want them to be doing it here," said Ramsey. "They're supposed to get the same education as someone in a traditional school."

As a principal in a regular school, you make decisions and then things happen. At Ramsey's school, many decisions have to be signed off on by members of the corrections department. But she still sets the tone.

"I tell them, 'Your renewal, your new start, is right here at my school,'" she said.