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Criminal justice academy/career academy programs' influence on "at-risk" youth success
At the close of the 20th century, high school educators, traditional local law enforcement and citizens in various underserved communities collaborated on social justice projects for “at-risk” racial/ethnic minority (REM) youth, labeled as Criminal Justice Academy (CJA)/Career Academy programs. These school-within-a-school programs established primarily in secondary public education, function in a shared capacity as educational and law enforcement-based curriculums. CJA/Career Academy programs operate using small learning community models primarily for students identified as having high statistical probabilities of failing scholastically in conventional classrooms and later in future employment markets. Although the mission of CJA/Career Academy programs is to improve scholastic performance, character-building and leadership skills, significant numbers of “at-risk” REM youth participants continue to drop out or are dismissed after their first year in the program. For those “at-risk” students who do not succeed academically and socially in CJA/Career Academy programs, many may retreat into previous conditions of social, cultural and economic despair, which often results in bouts of depression, low-paying jobs or criminal incarceration (Stern, Dayton, Paik & Weisberg, 1989). The purpose of this research study was to identify whether “at-risk” REM youth were performing better scholastically in CJA/Career Academy programs, gaining assistance and advantages with recruitment and hiring in the criminal justice workforce, and creating better relationships with traditional local law enforcement in communities. This research identified and aided in explaining the successes and challenges of “at-risk” REM youth who participate in these programs. The study used a mixed-methods approach to gather data. Quantitative data was obtained from 91 former CJA/Career Academy cadets who volunteered to participate in the anonymous on-line survey. Qualitative data was acquired from both open-ended questions within the anonymous on-line survey and from five former CJA/Career Academy cadets who volunteered to participate in the face-to-face personal interviews. Overall findings from this study revealed mixed reviews on the influence of CJA/Career Academy programs on “at-risk” youth success. Data suggested CJA/Career Academy programs aided “at-risk” REM students in scholastic success, mentorship and character-building development. However, research data also suggested many “at-risk” cadets continued to have difficulty managing police trust, persistent recruitment and hiring problems and continual complications with parental/community engagement with law enforcement. These outcomes explain why many “at-risk” cadets may not be meeting their desired goals during and soon after program participation ends. Future researchers should conduct longitudinal studies that evaluate students who express an interest in criminal justice careers. Additionally, researchers should also focus on the characteristics and types of students involved in the program. What challenges do they bring into classrooms as a result of being labeled as “at-risk”? Future studies may discover greater insight by examining the influences of CJA/Career Academy programs on females, foster youth, mentally and socially challenged and disabled youth as well.