The Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings (CEEAS) was founded in 2011 and is run almost entirely by David Domenici, a lawyer and the husband of Cheryl Mills, a lawyer and aide to former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. CEEAS, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, was founded with the stated purpose of reforming the educational systems of juvenile correctional facilities.
Domenici’s organization operates several short-term educational programs for young inmates every year, provides educational, administrative and policy counseling to both state agencies and private institutions, and has, since August 2016, run the Travis Hill School in the New Orleans Juvenile Detention Center.
David Domenici, son of the late former U.S. Senator Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), began working with inner-city children through a mentorship program at his investment banking job. After working as a corporate lawyer, he quit his job, cashed out his retirement fund, and, along with fellow lawyer James Forman, opened a pizza parlor which employed teenagers who had served jail time. In 1997, after realizing that many of the youths he was employing were not in school, he and Forman founded the Maya Angelou School, a small charter school in Washington, D.C. for youths who had been involved with the juvenile legal system. The school provided a combination of academic curriculum, counseling, and part-time employment (at one of the school’s two partner businesses). By 2015, the school, which started with 20 students, expanded to 450 students on three campuses.
Domenici later said that he became convinced that poor educational opportunities both outside of and inside jail were to blame both for high incarceration rates and for unemployment. He said in an interview with The Atlantic, “They are not bad kids—they are poor, they have failed at and been failed by our school systems.” Domenici advocates for an improved system of education in jails, one that works to “distinguish children who need help from those who warrant punishment.”
In 2011, Domenici sought to expand this vision beyond his efforts at the Maya Angelou School, founding the CEEAS in order to provide educational tools to many juvenile detention institutions, and to expand his advocacy efforts.
CEEAS’s current work includes a number of programs which involve direct work with students, resources and incentives for teachers in juvenile detention settings, and counseling and advocacy aimed at reforming educational policy and systems on a large scale.
Student programming consists of numerous monthly programs such as “Words Unlocked,” a month-long poetry initiative held every April, and “Start from Scratch,” a program that provides incarcerated students with basic coding and programming skills, and then hosts a competition for participants. By 2016, these programs were drawing over a hundred participating sites. Domenici argues that, because of their time away from the world and regular educational opportunities, these children “deserve the chance to continue their education” and to keep up with contemporary things like the developing technological world.
In August 2016, CEEAS took over the operation and administration of the Travis Hill School in the New Orleans Juvenile Detention Center, which serves around 40 regularly attending students. In fall 2017, it planned to open another school, modeled off of the Travis Hill School, in the nearby Orleans Justice Center, a pre-trial detention center in the New Orleans area.
Noting “how critical it is to get our nation’s best teachers into these schools,” CEEAS also counsels juvenile justice agencies on the recruitment, training, and evaluation of their teachers, and offers stipends and fellowships to teachers and administrators willing to teach in these schools.
CEEAS provides policy support and advocacy, pushing for more funding and attention to prison schools, and offering prison educational programs advice and suggestions on policy changes. Recently, for example, CEEAS helped the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs change its schools into public charter schools, shifting control from local school districts.
While CEEAS does not receive any grants directly from the government, as consultant to government institutions it receives much of its income from public sources. Domenici claims that an adequate education for an incarcerated student costs twice as much as for a typical public school student, and it has long been his explicit goal to have most of his budget covered by public funds. An online bio from back in 2002 describes this strategy explicitly: “David’s leveraging of public dollars magnifies a unique piece of his strategy: changing policy through the reallocation of funds.”
Its most recent large-scale program, a consortium of juvenile detention centers for the improvement of their educational programs, receives membership dues from D.C., Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Los Angeles, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York City, Oregon, Utah, and Virginia.
Domenici runs CEEAS almost single-handedly, reporting 50 hours a week of his own time, with the next largest part-time employee logging half an hour every week. The subordinate officers to Domenici (Executive Director) are, as listed on the Center’s site:
Christy Sampson-Kelly is Director of Practitioner Support.
Kat Crawford is Director of Technology Solutions.
Mi Ji Kim is Director of Administration and Operations.
Christina M. Campbell is an Equal Justice Works Fellow.
Jeremy Pike is a Data and Performance Associate.
Ismail El Shaakir is Principal of the Travis Hill School.
Ties to the Clinton Family
David Domenici is married to Cheryl Mills, a Clinton family lawyer known for her role in President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial and more recently for her prominent role in Hillary Clinton’s private email server scandal.
Domenici was himself implicated in the controversy following the exposure of Clinton’s emails, as a 2010 email surfaced in which Mills had forwarded a proposal by Mr. Domenici about an education corps in Haiti to Clinton, to which Clinton responded, “Great ideas (no surprise). Let’s work toward solid proposal maybe to Red Cross and Clinton Foundation since they have unencumbered $[sic].”
In 2013, its first year, CEEAS’ month-long poetry initiative “Words Unlocked” featured Chelsea Clinton as a judge in its final round.