Pathfinder program another example of LPS dedication to serve all students

Step into the center area of the Lancaster County Youth Services Center and you might forget you’re in a facility that houses detained youth ages 14-18 who have committed crimes.

The area in the middle of the building illustrates the core mission of the Lincoln Public Schools Pathfinder Education Program, which is housed at the youth services center: instilling the value of education in these youth so they can move past the experiences and actions that led them to this place in their lives. LPS worked in conjunction with Lancaster County to design the facility 20 years ago.

“The best compliment we got from people who visited the facility before the pandemic was, ‘Wow, this looks just like a real school,’” said Pathfinder Director Randy Farmer, who has been part of the program for 20 years and director for the past 16. He spoke about this groundbreaking and under-the-radar program at the most recent LPS Learning Lunch in December.

It’s typical at any given time for roughly 20 teenagers to be in the program, for anywhere between a couple weeks to multiple months. They rotate from class to class, taught by LPS teachers, and mainly focus on courses they need to earn credits toward graduation - math, science, language arts.

Farmer said it’s important to remember that all of these students have experienced some kind of trauma that led them to this point - and it’s not always the stereotypical student that people might envision. More and more, he said, they’re working with students with high grade point averages who are close to graduation.

“These are smart kids. These are curious kids. These are clever kids. These are really enjoyable young people to work with when they can let go of everything else that has happened.” 

The turnover among staff is very low, especially considering the challenges they may face on a given day.

“We laugh, we cry,” Farmer said, “and we come back the next day.”

Growing up in Papillion, Farmer never planned on going into education - or even going to college - until he realized how much he loved learning and eventually discovered what turned out to be his life’s passion: working with youth in the criminal justice system. He’s now a national expert on the topic, serving on national boards and speaking at conferences.

The Pathfinder program, funded by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, is designed to rehabilitate, not punish. Farmer said research shows that education is one of the most effective ways to reduce recidivism among youth offenders. He also said this LPS program is considered a model for the rest of the country.

“Our mantra is, ‘Be a participant. Be academic. Be thoughtful. Be honest.’”

Published: January 10, 2022, Updated: January 10, 2022