student success

How This Music Program Is Helping Incarcerated Youth Tell Their Stories

More than 60,000 young people are incarcerated in secure facilities, residences and group homes, learning in alternative education settings designed to keep them in school or prepare them for jobs once they reenter their communities. If we don't want kids to return to these facilities as adults, we have to have a curriculum in place to help break the cycle and support their success.

Studies show that education reduces recidivism and our work at the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings (CEEAS) is revealing that incarcerated youth learn better in smaller settings. The challenges these young people face are often different from those of traditional students, and we’re finding that traditional teaching methods aren’t always the best avenues for engaging children in these situations in meaningful learning activities.

Our mission is to improve education inside these secured schools and significantly increase the life chances of the students they serve. CEEAS promotes a therapeutic model that helps kids feel safe and supported, and encourages them to express themselves. The work we do reaches three-fourths of the incarcerated students in 38 states.

A Relevant, Personal Education

Not unlike all young people today, incarcerated students are inspired to learn when the modalities are personal. 

And because so many come from environments with little or no support, they have learned to rely only on themselves. Compounding this is the unfortunate reality that while they’re incarcerated, they lose everything about themselves.

Their freedom to choose is restricted in these facilities, and so giving them a way to tell their stories in a creative, stimulating and safe learning environment is critical to a population whose stories tend to go unheard.

Music is a highly effective outlet for this work. It’s relevant and authentic to their lives, and it gives the students a way to be heard.

A lot of my work centers on helping juvenile justice facilities tap into technology resources that make their classrooms more engaging. Recently, I saw first-hand how technology, combined with music and music writing, allows these young people to tell their stories. 

During site visits, I often hear students tapping on the table and either singing something they've created or singing music that they've missed from when they were home. I reasoned that if they could create such incredible music simply by tapping on the table and singing, their creativity would flourish if we put a tool in their hands.

A Competition with a Message

We decided on the Soundtrap online music and podcast recording studio because it’s compatible with Google Classroom and very easy for the students to use. Soundtrap provided free accounts, and in the fall of 2018, we launched a song-writing project, “UNSUNG: The Voices of Youth Justice,” focusing on topics that would impact the lives of our students. 

With the help of Soundtrap, we created 700 accounts for our youngsters across the United States. The students, many of whom were creating their first full-fledged song, had a week of curriculum and a week of learning the Soundtrap tool. 

The Soundtrap audio-making platform lets the kids compose and edit songs securely and collaboratively. They cannot email freely because we want to control communication, protect the digital footprint and keep them safe. But they worked together in our collaborative space to create their songs.

Songwriting and Higher-Order Thinking

Daniel Wynne, a teacher at a youth facility in Florida, said his students used higher-order thinking to navigate the process’ many moving parts and produce something they were proud of. He described the combination of technology, creativity and purpose as “a unique model for engagement, collaboration and critical thinking that piqued their interest from start to finish.” 

Education has a more lasting impact on kids when it involves their authentic experiences and one surprising bonus from this project was that it allowed the students to bring emotions into their musical creations. A lot of these kids want to participate in something that's gamified, which is why we’re exploring podcasting as another way to engage them and get their voices heard. We see Soundtrap as an important tool in our 2019 education agenda.

We see kids who are incarcerated multiple times in their teenage years.In order to fix the system so that they can be successful, we must understand the struggles that are preventing them from being successful.

UNSUNG generated 70 song submissions from individuals, pairs and teams. Their final product was heard across the U.S., and by people who work in the music industry and in politics.


The ultimate favorite, which was also called, “UNSUNG,” was composed and performed by a group of six young men from an Oregon youth facility. Their song was chosen by famed R&B and hip-hop artist Aloe Blacc as his favorite of the top five selections. The Top 5 songs were posted on YouTube. I saw people moved to tears and responding in ways that a piece of paper can’t evoke. When these kids have a safe environment, they’re very open to sharing with anyone who wants to listen. You can’t learn when people don’t believe in you—or when you don’t believe in yourself.

This is especially true for the myriad of young people in alternative education settings with major trust and self-esteem issues. Through music-making, they’re learning the value of collaboration, and they’re seeing how working with others can produce better results. They’re realizing their own creativity and gaining confidence. Above all, they’re strengthening their chances to succeed in the outside world.

Kat Crawford
Kat Crawford is the director of technology solutions at the Center For Educational Excellence In Alternative Settings (CEEAS), where she helps secure schools use technology to improve instruction, facilitate better communication with stakeholders, enable real-time analysis of student and school performance data, strengthen contract management and capture operating efficiencies. She has worked ...

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