Juvenile Hall students get lessons in art, music and poetry

Teaching art to kids in juvenile hall can be bittersweet at times.

“I don’t want them to be there,” said Tomas Montoya while sipping a cup of coffee recently, noting his class — coordinated by YoloArts and funded by a California Arts Council grant — is back in session.

Montoya, a Sacramento native, was chosen to lead the program geared toward incarcerated youth alongside other artists of various media, including music and poetry.

The program proved successful during its run last year, and has now gained additional funding to expand its reach to other youth — specifically students at the Cesar Chavez Community School, which has sites in both Woodland and West Sacramento.

Serving this population is nothing new to Montoya, who has taught on and off since he was 19. Now 36, Montoya enjoys helping kids learn about art and about themselves. Their work — both art and poetry — was displayed at Woodland’s Gallery 625, in an exhibit titled “WAKE UP CALL YOLO” last June.

For Montoya, teaching art came naturally. Both his parents were teachers, his father is also a painter and his brother is a playwright.

“Art was a big thing for us,” he said.

However, when attending the Art Institute of Sacramento, Montoya studied film.

Montoya explained he fell in love with cinema because he is able to use the medium to blend his artistry with poetry through narration. He put this into practice through his short documentary on the juvenile hall program, featuring his students there.

The short video was praised by Yolo County staff — including Chief Probation Officer Brent Cardall and Juvenile Hall Superintendent Ray Simmons — during a recent visit to the East Gibson Road facility.

The pair explained that the YoloArts endeavor was just part of an array of activities for the inmates to try.

“There are so many programs they end up getting tired during the night,” Cardall said. “Keeping them busy is better than idle time doing nothing.”

The chief explained that there are some youth — typically between 13 and 17 — are in the facility for serious crimes, meaning their stay is longer than their peers. Having valuable activities is a critical component to their rehabilitation.

Some of the programs mentioned were yoga, tutoring, cooking and a GED program. A gardening program is also in the works. Cardall emphasized that numerous local churches are involved in these efforts.

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“The community is very active in the juvenile hall,” he said.

“Most volunteers are here because that is where their heart is,” Simmons added.

Apart from programing, the facility itself is undergoing upgrades. Construction has already started on an expansion project, which features a multipurpose facility with an indoor gymnasium, visitation rooms and other amenities paired with curriculum focused on family reunification.

“Friends come and go but family is always there,” Cardall said.

Construction is on schedule to be completed by September 2017.

For Cardall, who has only held the chief probation officer post for three years, his first walk through the detention center halls was unsettling. The environment was too similar to a prison for his taste — with glass partitions between children and their parents during visitation, going against the reunification goal. The walls in the housing units, called pods, were a single shade of white, illuminated by florescent lights.

However, with assistance from YoloArts, this soon changed with the painting of elaborate murals, which stretch across the pod walls. Designed by Maceo Montoya, Tomas’ cousin, the murals touch upon different themes.

A particular piece depicts inmates breaking through a brick wall, running toward their families. To the right, a breakout scene shows an field fit for harvesting with a sun above. This is Cardall’s favorite.

With the continued partnership with YoloArts, the chief hopes to have more murals done in the remaining pods.

Meanwhile, students at Cesar Chavez Community School are just getting started.

With an opportunity to teach outside of the detention center walls, Montoya hopes to fold digital arts — like film and graphic design — into his Cesar Chavez class curriculum.

Montoya noted that the two environments have many differences.

Besides the obvious limitations of teaching within such a facility, there is a guard stationed in the room during instruction — a constant reminder of where they are.

However, this feeling can be felt in the classrooms as well, except sheriff’s deputies are traded out with probation officers.

“All students attending the Cesar Chavez Community School are on formal or informal probation and a Detention Office from Yolo County Probation is on site in Woodland,” according to the Yolo County Office of Education website.

These students also have the opportunity to be placed on independent study, the website continued. There are about 70 students currently enrolled.

“The intensity inside the Juvenile Hall still exists outside Juvenile Hall,” Montoya explained.

During a recent visit to the Woodland location, Montoya taught a group of Chavez students in the Yolo County Construction Program — or YCCP — which teaches carpentry skills. These students split their time between the East Beamer Street campus and the Yolo County Fairgrounds, where they take part in the Northern California Construction Program that is stationed there.

“When you see them there it is amazing what they are learning,” said Principal Gayelynn Gerhart.

Although she has only been at Chavez since July, Gerhart said “this is not my first rodeo.” Her resume includes teaching at Lee Middle School and serving as principal at Gibson Elementary. Gerhart has also worked in Sutter County and indicated she was happy to be back in Woodland.

Entering the portable classroom, Gerhart greeted the group of around a dozen students, who joked that her presence meant someone was in trouble. She smiled and stood at the back of the room as Montoya gave his lesson for the day — designing logos for fictitious businesses.

But before diving into that, Montoya shared some lessons from the past, inviting student Alize Narvaez up to read of pair of poems he wrote to explore a name for the group’s upcoming self-portrait exhibit. One titled “the rose that grew from concrete” and the other “all about me.”

Once finished, Narvaez rejoined his peers — the group was wearing matching uniforms of khaki pants and bright-yellow shirts with the Northern California Construction Training logo on them.

As for creating their own logos, students had ideas ranging from selling fitness clothes and sunglasses to piñatas and coffins. Montoya asked the students to explain why he should buy their products over others, prompting many laughs during the discussion.

When Montoya first started at Chavez, he began by sharing his personal story with the students, Gerhart explained.

“The kids can relate to him, his life, his story, his struggles,” she said.

After learning about Montoya’s past, he showed students his art.

“And they think, ‘well if he can do it, I can do it,’” Gerhart said.

Looking ahead, plans are in the works to turn a rarely used classroom on campus into an art studio, equipped with the tools needed to take a project from start to finish.