The concept of school-to-prison pipelines are a very real world outcome that those of us in Adult Education are all too familiar with. Just as many of my other blog posts deal with hard subjects, this one is no less difficult but true.
Did you know that a student who is not at a grade-level reading ability by the end of the 3rd grade is 4 times less likely to graduate high school on time and that increases to 6 times less likely if the student is from a low-income family? And did you know that a study by Northwestern University found that high school dropouts are 63 times more likely to be incarcerated than college graduates? (Michelle Alexander) Those of us in Adult Ed might not have known that statistic but I guarantee as you read this you are nodding your head because you have seen this play out.
I would like to share the stories of two students, A.B. and M.J. Let’s start with A.B. He is African-American, in his 60’s, and was incarcerated for approximately 15 years on a drug charge. By his own admission, he was recruited for a gang at age 13 and while he feels his arrest was valid, the punishment did not fit the crime. He has three grown children that he barely knows and is now trying to build relationships with them and his grandchildren.
A.B. is one of those students whose story needs to be heard. The first day I met him, he said to me, “Please don’t be scared of me. I know I look intimidating but I want to learn.” I have had A.B. for a student now almost 2 ½ years. His reading level prevents him from finishing as quickly as younger students. But he is persistent and I admire him for that determination.
Lack of opportunity, unequal access to services, experiences of trauma, low educational expectation, etc., have all affected A.B.'s life. He once told me, “I don’t want to use this as an excuse but I really never felt like I had another option but to join a gang. And I always assumed I would spend time in prison. It was almost encouraged. And I never had a teacher who treated me like there was another option for me.”
Let me quickly introduce you to M.J. and how he ties to A.B. M.J. is 17, African-American and joined my class a year ago as part of his probation requirements. He was arrested and convicted on a weapons charge. His grandmother agreed to take him in and move him away from his neighborhood and the gang he was a member of. M.J. is a ball of energy and always loves our class discussions. He ALWAYS has something to say.
About four weeks into the first semester I had M.J., we learned we had a new classmate joining us. As soon as this new student walked in, I knew there was trouble. The two met eyes and immediately started “talking to one another.” M.J. got up and yelled, “If he is here, I won’t be back!” To make a long story short, these two boys had been in rival gangs. I convinced M.J. that by walking away from class, he would be letting the system defeat him again, that he could overcome this school-to-prison pipeline by making a change. A.B. was instrumental in this. I arranged for him to talk with both boys by themselves and share his story. He encouraged them to make a change now and not end up like him, later in life trying to piece it back together. I also told the boys I would allow them to sit on opposite sides and would never place them together for group work; I just wanted them both to work toward their goal.
What happened throughout the rest of that semester was astounding. By the end, both boys were talking to each other and no longer had to be separated. I wish I could say they all finished their GED. A.B. is still working hard. M.J. is still working as well and has passed two parts. The third boy, however, was recently arrested on an assault charge and found guilty. He will be returning to jail, where we hope he will continue his GED work.
I love this quote from Michelle Alexander, “We must build a movement for education, not incarceration. A movement for jobs, not jails.” That really is the key. Education for all our citizens should be equitable. No student should feel as though their life has to go a certain direction. No student should feel they are less capable than others. If we could begin to change this from the onset of a student’s education, then students like A.B. and M.J. would never need my services.