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 Getting to Know SDCOE: Teacher Helps Detained Students Soar

Trevor Darling's Room 2800 at the San Diego SOAR Academy Kearny Mesa site looks much like a traditional high school classroom: smartboard, rows of desks, inspirational posters on the walls.

With a closer look, the subtle differences emerge. You won't find any backpacks, the only writing instruments are stubby pencils stored in a wooden block on Darling's desk, and the door is locked.

Darling's Momentum Learning classroom is in the Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility, which houses male and female offenders ages 10 to 19. The reasons for incarceration can range from truancy to drug possession to homicide. Darling teaches high school-level science and math to boys in UC 800 — Unit for Confinement — considered the highest-risk unit. It's just Darling and up to 15 students in his classroom.

An education career in a jail isn't for everyone, but Darling wouldn't have it any other way.

"I teach here because I can," he said. "It doesn't bother me. They're just students, and I treat them that way. I'm not scared that they're locked up. These guys are here to learn, and I'm here to teach."

Darling, who got his start with SDCOE in June 1996 as a teacher's assistant at Polinsky Children's Center, is entering his 10th year in Room 2800.

For Darling and his students, there won't be any parent-teacher conferences, nor back-to-school nights. He could have a student for two days or two years — it all depends on the case. Generally, his students are awaiting trial or sentencing.

There are challenges and limits to teaching in this setting, though. Darling, an SDSU graduate, can't conduct traditional science labs with his students, so he works to give them tangible examples through videos and research projects.

Darling said his biggest challenge is delivering an entire lesson plan "when the pieces keep changing."

"When kids are in and out each day, it's tough to make a complete project for them from start to finish, to teach them a full concept," he said. "The kids are coming and going while I'm trying to give them the pieces to learn. There's a ton of scaffolding involved because so many of these guys have gaps in their education. ... I try to give them a new skill or refine a skill if nothing else."

Darling has a teaching colleague who handles the history and English instruction for the boys.

Darling's favorite teaching moments are when he sees that his students are enjoying learning, when they light up and say, "I get it." And he never misses a San Diego SOAR Academy graduation.

Still, he admits some regret that he doesn't know whether his students find success.

"The bummer of this job is you almost never get to see the end positive result," he said. "You get to see some light in a student, but never the whole flame burning. So many of them go to prison from here. Some of these guys, I won't see them again because they're not coming out."

That doesn't stop Darling from working to make a difference in their lives, whether for one day or a few hundred.