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Kristi Arends hopes her education and research can help reform juvenile justice policy

Kristi Arends
Kristi Arends is pursuing a doctorate with the help of a fellowship endowed by Robert and Darlene Anderson.

Many public school teachers believe their jobs present unique challenges each and every day, but few people could dispute that assertion in Kristi Arends’ case. During her final three years as a teacher with the Wichita school district, Arends’ workplace was, essentially, a jail.

Arends taught English at the Sedgwick County Juvenile Detention Facility, engaging with children ages 10 to 18 being held for a range of crimes from petty theft to capital murder.

“Very few teachers would willingly go to jail every single day and attempt to teach students with inconsistent educational histories and uncertain futures,” said Arends. “I quickly had to learn to look beyond their jumpsuits and see the student for wherever he or she was on that day.”

But after three years of hearing the students’ stories of childhood abuse and criminal histories in their families, Arends felt compelled to try to do more — to work as a passionate advocate for juvenile justice reform.

She enrolled in the Educational Leadership program in the WSU College of Education, a doctoral program that allows students to apply the theoretical knowledge gained in the classroom to practical school situations. Through her dissertation project and research, Arends hopes to influence policy reform for the juvenile justice system and eventually teach at the college level.

At 38, married, and with three children, returning to school has presented many challenges for Arends, not the least of which is financial. She’s grateful to receive the Herbert and Lavina Hamman Fellowship, established by Robert and Darlene Anderson to honor Darlene’s parents. The fellowship is one of 21 funds endowed by the Andersons during their lives to help WSU students afford their education.

When Arends learned that she would receive the fellowship, her first thought was of the application essay she submitted. In it, she wrote about her desire to change juvenile justice practices.

“I thought, ‘Someone heard the voices of my students. Someone else cares,’” she said. “If I could have met the Andersons, I would have hoped to introduce them to one of my former, legally entangled students and let the student tell his or her story.”

Arends is only in the first year of the three-year doctoral program, but already she has made her own voice heard. She appeared before a state legislative committee and outlined steps schools could take to help keep students out of the juvenile justice system. The Kansas Legislature eventually approved a bill designed to begin a process of juvenile justice reform.

Arends grew up in Missouri and earned two bachelor’s degrees from the University of Missouri. She received a master’s degree from the University of Illinois. She worked five years as a teacher in rural Missouri, where she encountered many students with limited advantages and opportunities.

“That experience really highlighted a curiosity I’ve always had about those who are underdogs, people who often don’t have a voice others will hear,” she said.