“The chief problem for any community cursed with crime is not the punishment of the criminals, but the preventing of the young from being trained to crime.”

-W.E.B. Dubois, sociologist, author, and civil rights leader.

The first two parts of the “School-to-Prison Pipeline” series detailed a crisis in our educational system that denies too many people an opportunity to succeed in our society. Too many students are subjected to inadequate schooling, high stakes testing and “zero tolerance” policies that criminalize behavior that in the past may only have been seen as disruptive or problematic. These practices and policies have created a pipeline, pushing kids out of school through suspensions and expulsions and into jail. To make matters worse, there is a shocking racial bias inherent in this School-to-Prison Pipeline that is marginalizing people of color.

The logical question is: What are we going to do about it?

Early Intervention

The School-to-Prison Pipeline needs to be addressed all along the educational continuum. “Failure in school coming out of the third grade is the number one indicator for future court involvement,” said Josh Dohan, director of the Youth Advocacy Project. “In Ohio, long range prison capacity is estimated by looking at third grade test scores.” Dohan suggested that educational funding should be front-end loaded, to make sure every elementary school student learns how to read. Early success could influence a child’s attitude toward – vis-à-vis their performance in – school for the rest of their lives.

“With a prison population that is about 75 percent illiterate,” explained Dohan, “the problem is pretty clear.” He proposed that the Head Start program be expanded to cover every child that might need it. Head Start provides comprehensive services to young, low-income children and their families in order to encourage their healthy development. The program currently serves more than 900,000 children aged 3 and 4 nationwide, providing them education, health and other social services.

In a step clearly in the right direction, early literacy is getting some attention via federal dollars, as the Reading First program distributed almost $900 million nationwide this month. This money is earmarked to improve elementary schools by training for teachers, assessing students’ reading skills on a regular basis, and improving the core curriculum.

“While it is important to support strong teaching and learning in pre-school, elementary school, and high school, research shows that if those supports fall apart or simply don’t exist in middle schools, students are left extremely vulnerable,” warned Sara Freedman, a program associate for New England Turning Points, which works with urban middle schools. “The gains they may have made up to that point often disappear and in many cases, the students’ self esteem and ability and motivation to do quality work in schools evaporates and often never returns.”

To achieve these ends, Freedman suggested establishing small learning communities within each middle school, where each student has a team of teachers who are responsible for the success of the students assigned to them. In addition, she suggested the elimination of tracking, which designates some students as “low ability” and some students as “high ability,” as this can create ghettos within schools. Instead, Freedman envisions teams of regular and special education teachers, who are committed to the success of these students, with the ability to modify and integrate the classroom work for the students within those classrooms.

In an atmosphere where each student is seen as an important individual, their individual needs could be met. Amy Chris, in her role as the law enforcement liaison for Youth Opportunity Boston, identified several areas that, if satisfied, can keep kids in school and out of jail. “The big ones are special education needs, mental health needs – we get that one a lot – and substance abuse needs.”

In addition to in-school changes, both Dohan and Freedman suggested more community service learning programs, where kids develop and implement real world projects in their community. The benefits of these programs are numerous: they provide an alternative to life on the streets, create the opportunity for contact with strong role models and mentors, and imbue kids a sense of empowerment, importance and hope in both themselves and their communities.

High School: Four Years and a Diploma

Zero tolerance policies for suspensions and expulsions, which were intended to make classrooms safer, instead have interrupted or even ended many kids chance at an education. “When people think of suspension, they think of students pulling knives in class, but that is a tiny percentage of suspensions,” said Anne Wheelock, a senior research associate with the Progress Through the Educational Pipeline at Boston College. “Suspensions are used for repeated tardiness, talking back in class, and throwing potato chips in the cafeteria.”

There are promising intervention and prevention programs which address misbehavior without resorting to out-of-school suspensions. The On Campus Intervention Program (OCIP) was detailed in a report presented by The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

OCIP, which was originally adopted by Clearwater High School in Pinellas County, FL, works through several components. Students in the OCIP class are expected to keep up with their assignments from their regular classes, they attend individual and group counseling, and after completing OCIP, they may attend small group aftercare sessions.

The program has produced significant results at Clearwater High School. From the 1994-1995 school year to the 1998-1999 school year the number of students suspended dropped from 930 to 313. In addition, there was a 75 percent reduction in the number of physical altercations, a 50 percent decrease in classroom disruptions, and 82 percent of the OCIP graduates did not further engage in the behavior that originally landed them in the program.

A final policy that must be addressed in the School-to-Prison Pipeline is high-stakes testing. In Massachusetts, the MCAS has undermined, rather than enhanced, justice for students of color. “These tests are immensely burdensome on kids of color, because those are the kids who aren’t getting the resources, they’re not getting the high quality teachers, they’re not getting the good curriculum, and so forth,” said Daniel Losen, legal and policy research associate at The Civil Rights Project. “It’s an uneven playing field. They [the Massachusetts Department of Education] is trying to say ‘everybody has to pass this test. We’re not going to teach everyone on this test, but everyone is going to have to pass this test.’”

In Boston schools, advancing from grade to grade, and eventually earning a diploma, are based on passing the MCAS test. According to Wheelock, schools are given incentives on MCAS performance, rather than on graduating students in four years. Given the horrible disparities in school resources, if a student meets the attendance requirements, passes the required curriculum and puts forth the effort to meet our current standards of education, he or she should be allowed to graduate on time.

How do we pay to tear down the Pipeline?

Expanded programs and increased funding for destitute schools will require money, which is a difficult problem given the state’s current financial crisis. Gary Orfield, professor of education and social policy at Harvard University, gave a simple suggestion: “I would take some of the money from the justice system.” Freedman echoes this idea when she said: “All of this is very possible – if the money that is now going into building, maintaining and expanding prisons were diverted to the schools. It’s a question of priorities and power – who has the power to establish the priorities in our society?”