Public Schools: Pipelines to Prison?

Posted on April 3, 2011 by


Public School Teachers:

Are They Inspirations for Excellence or Wardens for Future Criminals?

By Bro. Mxolisi

We have heard it before. Now we are hearing it again: This nation’s public schools, in far too many cases, are pipelines to prison.

This time it is getting a bit of public focus, because a first-grade teacher in Paterson, N.J. posted that sentiment on her Facebook page, saying that she felt like a warden overseeing future criminals. She was suspended – with pay — on Thursday (March 31) after a number of parents complained to the school and asked that their children be removed from her class.

            The president of the Paterson Education Fund, a nonprofit group that supports the local school community, said parents were angry about the teacher’s comments because anyone, including her own students, could have read the negative characterizations. She said it highlighted a lack of commitment by some teachers. “It’s horrible,” she said. “And unfortunately, I don’t think she’s the only teacher in Paterson who thinks that way.”

Paterson, New Jersey, School 21

The Paterson district, with 28,000 students drawn from a population base of 50 per cent Hispanic, 33 per cent African American, 13 per cent Caucasian, and others, has 2,425 teachers,  is one of New Jersey’s most troubled school systems.  It was taken over by the state in 1991 because of fiscal mismanagement and poor academic performance.  The local school board serves in an advisory capacity only. That board’s president said he received several text messages from clergy and associates of the NAACP citing the Facebook posts. He added that he has heard similar comments before, suggesting that the mood of the targeted teacher could be more wide-spread. We might be led to wonder how side-spread that mood might be across the entire nation.

While we don’t know all the details of this teacher’s performance and sentiment, her concern is not far from those expressed in the 21st Century Foundation’s 2025 Campaign for Black Boys and Men, which was launched in January with the dream that boys becoming men in 2025 will find greater opportunities for prosperity than has been the case for Black men throughout the history of this nation. Their report sites that one of the outcomes of inadequate educational experiences is “more time spent in prison.”

While the 2025 Campaign is specifically concerned with Black Boys and Men, their findings and proposals can be pertinent for other groups who are not well-served by the “main-stream” oriented offerings that dominate the nation’s schools. Their report states the following: 

“Around the country, our education system fails huge numbers of Black male students each year. Along all points of the educational continuum, Black boys and youth are falling off.  Many begin their school experiences already behind due to lack of access to quality early childhood opportunities. The decline in academic achievement continues through the K-12 years, deepening with each passing school year. Half of them do not complete high school in four years, and many of those who do are not adequately prepared for postsecondary education, training or work opportunities.

“Unequal educational opportunities have compound and lasting effects on academic achievement and educational completion in the short term, and overall life outcomes in the long term.16  A life of poverty due to sporadic employment in low-wage, dead-end jobs, more time spent in prison, and shorter life spans than anyone else in America. . . . Academic struggle and failure in youth often sets the bar for where one will be for a lifetime. Without early intervention, Black boys who are currently in kindergarten will face these very same outcomes in the year 2025. . . . Perhaps most important, though, is that teachers and administrators have high expectations and genuine belief in the promise and performance of Black male students. Sadly, too many Black boys lack access to all these key elements in their educational settings, which deny them their right to a high-quality public education.”

If these negative realities are to be rectified the 2025 report urges that we must do all we can in every way we can to finance and achieve (among other things) the following:

Quality educational experience along all points of the educational continuum from early childhood to post secondary;

Schools that address the multi-faceted developmental needs of the whole child by engaging the entire community in the educational process;

Engage the faith-based community in developing civic engagement projects for Black boys and youth, which help to reinforce values that promote peaceful communities;

• Enhance recruitment and retention strategies to attract qualified teachers that are trained in specific academic content areas and have a track record of effectively teaching Black student populations, particularly in high-minority or high-poverty schools.

These objectives are largely echoed in the work of The Black Star Project of Chicago which is intense in its efforts for better educational outcomes for African American youth. They say, “It is clear that if we rely on public schools to educate our children, free thinking individuals will become extinct. Free thinking is a foundational ingredient for success, invention, progress and culture. These things cannot be taught through a curriculum but through life itself.”

Relative to Black young men in particular, and citing graduation rates of only 21 to 35 per cent for African American males in the nation’s 25 largest school districts, The Black Star Project warns, “Without a high school diploma, young Black men in American are obsolete!”  But we must know it takes even more than that. Their “solutions” include the following:

1. Inform and teach Black parents, Black families and concerned Black community members about the importance of effectively participating in the education of Black male children.

 2. Ensure that Black boys are prepared socially, emotionally and academically between preschool and third grade with the basic skills they must have for educational success in higher grades.

3. Instill strong educational values in young Black boys and young Black men by making education the highest priority in the Black community.

4. Establish new standards in schools and communities and new teacher expectations that promote the success of young Black men to solidify their future contributions in mainstream American society.

5. Give incentives that help create and maintain nurturing, effective, supportive, child-centered, two-parent families as a model for future relationships.

6. Identify and engage strong, positive role models for young Black boys and men by developing strong mentoring systems to instill positive values in Black males.

7. Instill a strong work ethic in Black males augmented with high quality technological and literacy skills.

8. Manage schools, teachers, administrators, superintendents, parents and elected officials to produce successful outcomes for Black males in American schools.

9. Develop viable community vehicles, spiritual principles, positive values and developmental activities to ensure the positive social/emotional development of young Black men.

10. Establish a national, non-governmental, comprehensive response that is government and privately funded to manage the resources, programs, policies, agencies, ideas, advocacy and people who must solve this problem. 

We must grow to truly understand the realities embodied in the public-school-to-prison-pipeline expressions, and not fail to put the New Jersey teacher’s expressions into proper context. Let’s hear, heed, feel and embrace with purpose these words from the Black Star Project:

“Schools cannot educate children without the support of parents, families and communities.  Good teachers and administrators are invaluable to the educational process, but they are not miracle workers.  Schools, by themselves, do not educate children; they simply reinforce and expand what children already know when they come to school.  What happens in a school is important; but just as important is what happens in the home and the community where the child lives.  Societal structures, value systems, cultures, institutions, and positive environments are powerful influencers of education in children.  Good schools seldom (if ever) create good communities; but good communities usually create good schools!  Active and involved parents, families, communities are necessary to educate children.”

Let us not sit by –idly, feebly, apathetically — waiting for visitors’ days at the wrong end of the pipeline!