Serving adjudicated youth in Detroit with empathy and mentorship

Becky Carlton
Nov 17, 2021 1:09:42 PM

Valisa Murray began the start of this school year with hopes of supporting her students in a holistic approach to help them achieve their goals of rehabilitation. Valisa currently mentors 10 students at Spectrum Juvenile Justice Services, a high-security residential treatment facility, located in Highland Park. Valisa has a background in counseling, however, she doesn't necessarily love the idea of individual counseling as her main gig. She really has a passion for life-skills mentoring and loves her current role with Covenant House Academy helping students who are housed at the Spectrum facility. These students have been court-mandated there due to serious offending behaviors.

I feel that fostering a judgment-free zone is essential to the students’ growth. They don’t have to be their past, they can change, and this is the new beginning for them.”

- Valisa Murray, Student Mentor at Covenant House Academy

The Spectrum facility houses up to 180 students, although with COVID, their enrollment has been limited this past year. Covenant House Academy, a charter public school authorized by Grand Valley State University enrolling more than 800 students, ages 15-22, provides a virtual educational program for these students. Teachers at Covenant House Academy’s Central Campus, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard in Detroit, will often video call to help support students with one-on-one support as they work through their math or science work. This is also supplemented through some onsite support. 

Valisa currently oversees two “pods” and supports their learning throughout the day as they work through their differentiated virtual programs. Each student’s needs are different. As students begin their studies each morning, some will be really tired from lack of sleep the night before, and Valisa welcomes them with permission to gather themselves. This trusting relationship allows the students to feel welcomed and seen. Her empathic approach with the students has made tremendous progress in such a short amount of time. “Valisa has such a strong bond with her students that you would think she has been working with them for much longer,” says Sean Vann, the leader for this unique program. 

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But how did Valissa create such meaningful relationships with her students in such a short period of time? She is clearly passionate about her community and her work with these kids. She sees the program as an investment in their future and remains a positive adult figure in what might for some be the darkest of times for these young adults. 

Her initial goal going into this school year was to get the students to trust her. On the first day when she met her students, she told them a bit about herself and then asked them to tell her about them but asked them not to tell her why they were in this juvenile system. “I wanted them to introduce me to the person they were right now and who they hope to be moving forward,” Valisa says.  

Most of these students have experienced some sort of trauma, due to crime, home environment, or exposure to abuse and neglect. “These students may not have the educational attainment, however, they are rich in time now to reinvent themselves. We are not a pipeline to prison, but a pipeline to the future,” said Mr. Sean Vann who is a certified teacher and leads this unique program. 

Valisa standing in front of her mindset matters posters

Valisa offers “Wisdom Moments” each day and asks students to write what the quote means to them in journals she provides them. She is able to keep their trust by keeping these words and personal stories private to each individual student. “This way when they leave the program, they leave with a journal of wisdom that they wrote to themselves to help them transition to their next chapter,” says Valisa. 

I am a retired DPS teacher and school principal with 30 years of experience. Valisa is one of the most natural educators I have ever seen in my career. She is the person I wish I would have had as a teacher when I was a student.”

- Sean Vann 

Through her encouragement, she instills values into her students who are young teens and still impressionable. Valisa smiles as she talks about her students and reminds us to caution our judgment, saying, “they have their whole lives in front of them and this one bad decision does not have to define them for the rest of their lives.” Through the dedicated work of the teachers and mentors who support students at the Spectrum facility through this virtual educational program, these students have access to positive relationships reinforcing their social and emotional wellbeing.

The Covenant House Academies’ work to educate youth at Spectrum is a clear example of the grit and dedication needed to operate a unique virtual program that truly gives their students a promising second chance. “We are here to help and are genuinely invested in their learning and their growth. Despite the challenges that they are facing, we are doing extra work to give these students a second chance,” says Valisa Murray.

A student smiles behind a mask holding up a sign that reads "Thank you, Veterans"

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