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Plugging Pasadena’s School-to-Prison Pipeline

Learning Works! chasers Kendrik Watson and Carlos Cruz.

Learning Works! chasers Carlos Cruz and Kendrik Watson.

As Governor Arnold Swartzenegger and the Democratic-controlled state legislature strip education funding wholesale to meet California’s budget collapse, Pasadena’s public school district offers a microcosm of the woes besetting school districts that are already in crisis across the state. Recent months have seen a drumbeat of distressing reports of alarmingly high dropout rates in Pasadena’s schools, rising expulsions and suspensions, and harsh treatment of teenage students by police, courts, and the juvenile detention system.

To examine these issues, the American Civil Liberties Union held a “School to Prison Pipeline” forum this past week to an overflow 100-person crowd at Pasadena’s Neighborhood Church. Moderated by Saudeka Shabazz of the Children’s Defense Fund, the event featured Miriam Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor; Mikala Rahn, director of the school district’s alternative school; and Edwin Diaz, Pasadena’s school superintendent.

While the presenters outlined earnest efforts to address various aspects of a failing school system, the audience of parents, teachers, and community activists largely left feeling that not enough was changing and none of it fast enough, to judge by comments expressed during and after the meeting.

One in Three Going to Prison

“A black boy born in 2001 in America has a one in three chance of going to prison,” said moderator Saudeka Shabazz. “For a Latino boy, the odds are one in six.”

The school-to-prison pipeline is a set of policies combined with failing institutions that lead young men of color to prison or violent early death, according to Shabazz, a Berkeley grad who worked in gang intervention before becoming an outreach coordinator for the Children’s Defense Fund. She cited two early factors that put children into the pipeline:

  • Health and mental health access: “Low birth weigh children often have learning delays or disabilities,” she said. “And poor mothers get less prenatal care, which leads to these problems.”
  • Early childhood education: Children who get early education are higher achievers later on in life, according to Shabazz. “Teachers mark children early if they can’t keep up.”

Poverty works hand-in-glove with racial discrimination to put children of color behind the eight ball long before they reach high school.

One in Ten of the Nation’s Foster Children

“Anytime you open a school door, you close a prison door,” MIriam Krinsky said, quoting Victor Hugh. A former 15-year federal prosecutor who now serves as a public affairs professor at UCLA, Krinsky focused on LA County’s 25,000 foster kids.

“Every day, 100 kids come into the childcare system in Los Angeles,” she said. “Already we have nearly one in 10 of all foster children in the US.”

According to Krinsky, these children:

  • Commonly will not see a doctor or any healthcare worker all year.
  • Half are separated from brothers and sisters.
  • On average will pass through nine schools.
  • One in three will become homeless.
  • One in five will end up in jail within a year of two or turning 18.
  • 83% are held back by the third grade.
  • Only 15% will enroll in higher education; only 3% will graduate.

“It’s hard to make sure these youth are part of the discussion for change,” she said. “It’s doubtful to expect any child can succeed in life if denied education—that’s especially true for foster children.”

“All of us need to be corporate or community parents for these 25,000 foster children.”

Saudeka Shabazz, Children's Defense Fund

Saudeka Shabazz, Children's Defense Fund

Any Adult Will Do

Mikala Rahn, director of the Learning Works! Charter School, offered a ray of hope in a dark evening. Her school corrals dropouts from the Pasadena school system, working with them intensely to help them graduate. Last year, the school had 262 students, most in grades 12 and 13, 52 with children of their own.

Her school’s job: “Believe in all youth, insist that a high school education is a right, and know that all youth are 100% redeemable,” she said.

The school doesn’t exactly recruit students. “Dropouts know dropouts, so they find us,” she said. The school then deploys “chasers”—adults not much older than the students themselves who accompany students as they overcome hurdles—daunting doctor’s visits or court appearances, for example.

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Many proposed solutions to the nation’s educational crisis call for more parental involvement. “We find that any adult will do,” said Rahn, who sees it a bit differently.” By the time our students get to us, there often isn’t a parent to be involved.”

While acknowledging that many police, probation officers, and judges do a standup job for youngsters, she decries the harsh, unforgiving attitude toward many students, especially the poor black and brown ones. “We live in a difficult context,” she said. “It starts with the death penalty, moves down to three strikes, and goes on from there.”

Rahn believes that the less time youth spend in juvenile hall the better and that “probation shouldn’t be a place of judgment, but of starting over.”

Keeping Kids in School

“The solution isn’t to catch kids after they’ve demonstrated some degree of failure,” said Superintendent Diaz. “The solution is to have mechanisms in place to keep kids on a path to realize their dreams.”

According to Diaz, Pasadena’s dropout rate in grades 9 through12 is a stunning 24%--about equal to the equally stunning statewide rate.

Diaz cited a menu of intervention activities that the district has recently introduced:

  • Five social worker interns who made 2,500 calls, 600 home visits, and 50 parent conferences to students who were missing school or otherwise not connecting with academic activities.
  • Seven staff members deployed in parent training to assist families whose kids are significantly out of control.
  • Revamped expulsion policies designed to examine each expulsion individually, which reduced levels to the lowest in five years.

“What we need is a network of strong advocates for kids. In the community. Unfortunately,” Diaz acknowledged, “I’m afraid there is a negative attitude toward our high school students.” Clearly, he also acknowledged, race and class play a large role in that damaging view.

Miriam Krinsky, UCLA; Mikala Rahn, Learning Works!; Edwin Diaz, Pasadena Unified School District.

Miriam Krinsky, UCLA; Mikala Rahn, Learning Works!; Edwin Diaz, Pasadena Unified School District.

Frustration at Slow Progress

The question and answer session that followed the four presentations was misnamed, as the dozen or more audience members who lined up to ask questions instead almost invariably delivered emotional diatribes—including one who purported to be a teacher of 30 years’ standing, who berated the panel, shaking her fist and dancing in circles in a performance that would have gotten her sent to her room in many homes.

Even when more dispassionately expressed, the depth of frustration was evident in follow-up conversations.

“I thought the information presented was done nicely but it would have been really nice to start talking about strategies to make a difference in what current policies are impacted the youth in such a way to decrease the numbers,” said Pixie Boyden, Associate Director of Administrative Computing Law School.

“Now what?” asked Shirlee Smith, who said she had put four children through Pasadena schools and then through college as a single mother on welfare and is now doing the same with a long-term foster child. “Presentations of this type are very unsettling as the problem persists and who is going to plug the hole and stop the progression down this pipeline? The Superintendent of Pasadena schools skirted the issue. This politically correct nonsense of inviting panelist who are the problem only sets off people who know the truth and who work to help families but with NO support from school districts.”

Others pointed to Pasadena itself, a city with some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the state where parents often send their kids to private academies, and across town the black and brown neighborhood where kids attend, and far too often drop out of, the public schools.

“Pasadena has always had really low tax levies for its schools,” said Steve Lamb, a former town council member in nearby Altadena. “The policy was then to educate the middle class kids—including interestingly some middle class children of color—but to not educate poor White, Latino and African-American kids. These policies continue, wrapped up in words of sweet kindness and deeds of destruction.”

Counterbalancing the gravity of the school crisis and the deep-seated frustration was the youthful optimism evident in the joyful faces of Carlos Cruz and Kendrik Watson, the two “chasers” Mikala Rahn brought with her from Learning Works!, one himself a dropout redeemed through persistence and compassion.

dick price

Dick Price
Editor, LA Progressive