A Matter of Justice: Sharing Responsibility for Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline

caraballo-head-shot-reducedThis piece provides links to several resources around a central issue. Learning all you can about the issue you’re advocating for is a critical first step in Everyday Advocacy. Note also how the author points to the importance of finding allies and raising awareness as essential to any movement toward a solution.

Over 10 years ago, I read an article by Pedro Noguera that challenged me to think deeply and differently about the broader impact of educators in the lives of our most underserved and marginalized students. The article began with a short vignette about a conversation he had with an assistant principal during a visit to an elementary school in the California Bay Area. As they approached the main office, the assistant principal gestured to a boy of about 8 or 9 years of age and said, “There’s a prison cell in San Quentin waiting for him.” In response, Noguera asked an important question: “What is the school doing to prevent him from going to prison?” The administrator, somewhat flustered, responded that the boy lived with his elderly grandmother and that his father and other relatives were in prison. He felt that there was not much more that the school could do for students with such behavioral problems. In fact, he was preparing to put this boy in an indefinite school suspension.

Admittedly, prior to reading this article over a decade ago, I did not see a direct connection between the school-to-prison pipeline and my work as an English teacher. But imagining the possible future in- and out-of-school experiences of that little boy was sobering for me, and it challenged me to think more broadly and deeply about the ways in which all educators at all grade levels, not just administrators and school discipline policies, could inadvertently be perpetuating this insidious pipeline. What had this child experienced in his few years in school? What were his opportunities to create, read, and write? In what ways was he able to connect to what he was supposed to be learning? To what extent had his teachers been able to develop meaningful connections with him and/or his family? How might his future educational trajectory be different?

While it is certainly impossible for schools (and teachers) to counteract all of the structures and circumstances that contribute to a growing school-to-prison pipeline in our society, it is crucial for all of us, as educators, administrators, scholars, and policymakers, to consider the ways in which rethinking our approaches to curriculum and classroom practices, school policies, student discipline, and research can help to dismantle what can be a direct school-to-prison pipeline for the children in greatest need.

In preparing the recently ratified NCTE Resolution, the Commission for Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline sought to highlight the possibilities for collaboration between various advocacy groups, centers and institutes, educators, and youth. In addition to the disciplines and areas above (which I have linked to some examples), Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) and other intergenerational collaborations toward critical participatory action present ways in which the youth and communities who are most affected by the school-to-prison pipeline can shape our approaches to dismantling it. For example, YPAR can build upon youth’s cultural, critical, and media literacies as it promotes social action.

Although awareness about the various contributing factors to the school-to-prison pipeline has broadened significantly in the past several years and is increasingly part of a national discourse, there is no single solution: next steps are a matter of shared responsibility. These include speaking truth to power and insisting on a shared sense of accountability among all stakeholders, particularly those who create and implement educational and social policy. Perhaps most important, becoming aware of the educational and social injustices that our students face daily, and striving to create curricula and develop pedagogies that are critical, collaborative, and culturally sustaining are critical and urgent next steps for literacy educators at all grade levels.

Limarys Caraballo, member of NCTE since 1998, is an assistant professor of English education at Queens College and a former high school English teacher and assistant principal. Her current interests include youth and teacher action research, multiple identities and literacies in ELA, and social justice in education. She can be reached at lcaraballo@qc.cuny.edu.

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