Teacher leaves retirement to teach at juvenile detention center

Jerry Peckinpaugh, who has been teaching at the Curry County Juvenile Detention Center for five years, uses art as a teaching tool.

By Marlena Hartz : CNJ staff writer

A chair in Jerry Peckinpaugh’s home acts as a stand for his art, mostly sketched landscapes, one stacked behind another. The Indiana native is soft-spoken and mild-mannered, making a sort of conundrum out of his chosen profession: teacher at the Juvenile Detention Center.

Unlike his scenic sketchings and watercolors, Peckinpaugh’s students are born of less than idyllic backgrounds. They come from broken homes and mean streets. By the time they reach Peckinpaugh, many have developed an intense dislike of learning, he said.

“You’ve got runaways,” said Peckinpaugh of his students, a pen poking from atop his blue oxford shirt pocket, “you’ve got fighters. Then you’ve got students who’ve committed adult crimes — shootings, stabbings.”

Peckinpaugh, a retired Roswell art and language arts teacher and a former member of the Air Force, has been teaching at JDC for five years. For him art has always been a form of therapy. He uses it in his classroom— asking his students to begin their day by writing a paragraph about how they feel. But in an environment where verbal threats and bad behavior is part of the norm, Peckinpaugh is often left with only one defense, a sense of humor.

“Once that door (to the classroom) is closed, it’s locked,” said Peckinpaugh. “But I’ve always felt safe. They know I’m there to help them… I try to joke with them a lot and get them to laugh. I say things like ‘well, if you were as good lookin’ as I am, you wouldn’t have to do your work.’ And that usually works.”

A string of teachers were employed for short stints at the Juvenile Detention Center before Peckinpaugh stepped out of retirement to fill the position.

“There was nobody who wanted to work in a jail setting. The only thing these kids are allowed to use (in class) is a pencil — they can make weapons out of anything,” said Rose Workheiser, juvenile administrator. “You’re working with kids who have broken the law. The last thing on their mind is school.”

The JDC, tucked into a hidden corner of the Curry County Courthouse, is indeed jail-like.

There are currently nine juveniles in custody, but the number, Workheiser said, varies daily. School is not in session now, so the classroom in which Peckinpaugh teaches, its walls lined with paperback books, is used for a variety of purposes. It is sparsely decorated, with six small wooden desks and a rectangular blackboard.

The juveniles sleep in closet-like rooms, each furnished with a thin cot-like mattress, a blanket, and a tin toilet. Some must be taught one-on-one, inside their cells, and students of different gender, or gang affiliation, said Workheiser, are always separated.

Peckinpaugh’s students are given one small luxury — paperback books are permitted inside the cells, but all pencils, hardback books and paper must be stowed in the classroom.

Peckinpaugh said he has to be creative to reach his students.

“You can’t yell at them ‘cause they’ve been through it before. You have to find their interest in life. For a lot of them it’s cars or money. They want to make it — but they’re scared a little bit. They need someone to say ‘hey, come on, let’s do it,’ ” Peckinpaugh said, adjusting his thick, rimmed glasses.

To address the unique needs of his students, some who do not know their multiplication tables, others who cannot read, Peckinpaugh implemented a life skills class. In addition to math, English and reading, he spends a chunk of time teaching students how to balance a checkbook, fill out an employment application, or scan the classified section of the paper.

“He doesn’t just say ‘learn this,’” said Scott Sparks, principal of Choices Alternative School, Peckinpaugh’s employer, “he says ‘you should learn this because it will help you later in life.’ The biggest plus is that he makes his lessons relevant to their world.”

That world is especially bleak and complex, say Peckinpaugh and Workheiser — they encounter many minors with parents housed next door at the Adult Detention Center, minors who use crime to build status among their peers, minors who are lawbreakers at tender ages, one as young as six. As judges slam down gavels and public schools shut doors for those at JDC, Peckinpaugh extends a hand.

“I feel like I’m really helping them,” Peckinpaugh said. “My hope is that someone gives them a break.”