For 23 years, Stewart taught incarcerated youth
For nearly a quarter of a century, math professor Craig Stewart has helped shape the future of California’s incarcerated youth. He began his career with the Juvenile Justice Division (JJD) in 1999 as a part-time employee at the Fred C. Nelles School in Whittier. Two years later, he became a full-time teacher, working at several California Youth Authority/DJJ facilities, including now-closed facilities in Norwalk.
Today, he teaches at Mary B. Perry High School at the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility.
Since August is back-to-school month, DJJ introduces some of its teachers, who are part of the California Education Authority, DJJ’s own school district.
What professional accomplishments are you most proud of?
When I started, there were a lot of things that I didn’t expect, of course. Just the climate where the kids don’t like each other, you know, you had to get used to a tornado coming through your room and then being able to pick it up and say, “Hey, where did we stop? “Not to be emotionally caught up in what just happened. I realized that I knew I had this interesting personality where I could do that, I could really pick up the pieces and pick up and get everybody back on track. I guess my redirection skills are pretty good because in my first year of teaching I got Teacher of the Year and Employee of the Month awards.
Who influenced you?
I had great mentors. A vice principal when I came here to Ventura, Felicia Jones, had a Changing Lives Award, given annually to any staff member who had a positive effect on students to change their lives in a direction other than the one they had been brought here. It was probably one of my favorite awards I’ve ever received.
In Norwalk, Superintendent Cassandra Stansbury was there at the time. She was so amazing and the things I learned from her really rubbed off on me in a way that I use today. His philosophy was simply to treat these young people as if they were your own. It was his philosophy, and it was a winning philosophy. And so it was easy to adopt that with my students.
Here at Ventura., we have a lot of respect for each other. There’s a great group of teachers here who are really here for the right reasons. These are the kind of people I like to work with. We just feed off each other.
With the closure, there is a lot of anxiety at the moment and you can always sit down with a colleague. We have lunch together. My room is still open too. It’s one of the biggest venues, so people stop by. It’s a great place right now, even though we’re about to close.
What don’t people know about you?
It’s hard to tell from my profile picture, but I lost my leg when I was 19. I was in the military and got bone cancer in my right knee and the only way to save my life was to take my leg. So I move around with my crutches or my wheelchair. I don’t really bring my wheelchair here to work. I have these amazing titanium Canadian forearm crutches that have continued to carry me through my life’s adventures for over 30 years and at the same time have helped me stay fit.
But the children see that I am obviously also a disabled person. There’s a lot more compassion I get from kids because of that. There were times, believe it or not, I rolled over in my chair and grabbed an edge, rocking in my chair. The kids rushed over and picked me up and put me back in the chair and asked if I was okay. There is a real sensitivity on their part. They really respect where I am in my abilities, but then they realize, “Oh man, that’s the kind of guy he’s really there to help and defend us.”
And now I have a reputation. The children know who I am. They know I’m a complete advocate for them. I must be. That’s why I’m here. Plus, I have a great sportscaster voice and I take great pride in using that talent for high school graduation when I announce all the grads’ names in my booming voice!
What do you do with your free time?
I am a huge train enthusiast. I’ve taken the Amtrak Coast Starlight train at least a dozen times. In retirement, I look forward to traveling to Europe and taking all the great trains there.
By Mike Sicilia, DJJ Deputy Press Officer
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