Students expelled from schools around Macon-Bibb County now have another opportunity to learn.
The Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice opened a new education center Thursday morning at the Youth Development Campus on Riggins Mill Road.
Young men and women on probation, who live in the community but have been banned from traditional campuses, will begin attending class Friday at the girls facility.
“There was a void in their life and now that void has been filled with opportunity,” said DJJ Commissioner Avery Niles. “We hope to grow it and expand it because there is a need in the state.”
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Georgia First Lady Sandra Deal cut the ribbon Thursday on the second of five facilities planned in Georgia.
The first center opened in Savannah and there are plans to develop programs in Augusta, Fulton County and Columbus, Niles said.
Audrey Armistad, DJJ’s associate superintendent, said 22 students in Bibb County who have been expelled or suspended are eligible to attend.
“So they’ll be getting to go to school (Friday),” Armistad told Deal during the tour.
Nine of those will be seeking their high school diploma and 12 others will be seeking GEDs.
“Sometimes we have those 17-year-olds... who are reading on the second and third grade levels. So we have to take them and try to bring them up,” Armistad said.
DJJ runs the state’s 181st school system and evaluates which youth have enough credits to obtain a diploma from the Georgia Preparatory Academy.
Vocational training also is available.
While on campus, Deal met with a handful of male and female probationers in the new program and several young women currently serving time.
Nearly all of the resident girls sported fresh hairdos and traded their uniforms for dresses, fancy shoes and pearls.
The governor’s wife asked each of them how they felt their lives got off track and encouraged them to take advantage of every educational opportunity.
“Just think how many years you have ahead of you, and you don’t want to live on minimum wage and flip burgers the rest of your life,” Deal said.
Gail Tolbert Smith, a DJJ parent engagement specialist, stressed the importance of reaching teens before it is too late.
“This is going to be an awesome opportunity for the families in this area,” Smith said. “The kids in the community who are not in school will have another opportunity to get their diploma or GED.”
Deal, who is a former teacher, stressed the students’ rare opportunity to get individualized help.
In traditional schools, teachers often don’t have a chance to delve into emotional issues that DJJ counselors can identify, she said.
“Sometimes they act out in school because they are angry at themselves,” Deal said. “Sometimes they’re just angry at the world and they need to learn how to deal with those issues.”
Deal also told them to forgive themselves and put the past behind them.
“What’s done’s done,” she said. “Clean up the mess the best you can, take responsibility and then move on with our life.”
Before Deal left with her gift of a dozen red roses, she said: “Our goal for all of them is to be successful. To get out of here and be good at life.”
After her departure, Niles called his staff together for a pep talk.
He stressed the importance of being focused on the youth and their challenges.
“Don’t let this opportunity die,” he said. “Make sure hope happens.”
To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303 and follow her on Twitter@liz_lines.