Teacher Spotlight

In the Compound


Roberta Villa

I eagerly said yes to teaching for IOW at Central Juvenile Hall, but I had to be tricked into teaching in “the Compound” at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar.   The Compound, four units enclosed by an additional tall gate with barbed wire, is a brick building housing boys aged 14 to 18 who are being tried as adults.  I was afraid to teach here, but not because of the population. I wondered, what do you say to a young boy when he tells you he received a life sentence?

Seven years after agreeing to sub one class for a friend, I have spent nearly every Saturday morning with “my boys.”  They dislike being called that, but that is what you discover they are.  They are boys who’ve tried to survive their violent upbringings and must now make unbelievable decisions like whether to take a 26–year deal or go to trial and face a lifetime behind bars.  Boys who naively think they’ll return to their moms, only to get 90 years.  I’ve also seen boys who are proven innocent or who’ve done only three years before returning home to attend college and help others.

This is the hardest part for a Compound teacher, teaching the same lesson at one table to some students who will go home alongside those who will never leave prison.  It’s a balancing act every week.  But I’m enraptured, as we go on with our lessons, loving when natural laughter erupts or when someone reads something so brilliant and poignant that I cry or we all clap.

I never had to be afraid of these classes.  These students give my life focus, purpose and inspiration as I now associate young faces I’ll never forget with the time they receive:  Richard – 26 years, David – 120 years, and Michael – five life sentences.  Bills, car accidents, break–ups and work deadlines have become blessings to me, as all of these problems represent freedom – something I’ve learned never to take for granted, something I learned from my boys in the Compound.

Beginning with a degree in English and Secondary Education, Roberta has diligently worked to become a knowledgeable youth development specialist with an emphasis on gang and probation youth as a Program Coordinator with the City of Los Angeles and presently with the L.A. Conservation Corps.  Her eight years as a teacher with IOW gave her further insight to develop curriculum and a portfolio for adjudicated youth, “Lifeline 4 Teens.”  Her goal is to publish both, and focus on the next phase of her life, training new youth professionals and teachers.