Book Excerpt from Chapter 4 of Unlocking Potential: Organizing a School Inside a Prison. This excerpt offers readers a glimpse at the importance of “reaching, teaching, and engaging” students at all times. In this excerpt I attempt to help Jerline talk through and gain insight into his circumstances and come to some understanding of living and growing up in prison.
By Hilderbrand Pelzer III Author of Unlocking Potential
Despite facing murder charges, 17-year-old Jerline proved, in prison, to be an outstanding, conscientious student. He was the living representation of Winston Churchill’s famous statement, “I am always willing to learn, however I do not always like to be taught.” During his trial, Jerline began to pull away from the relationship he had developed with the school and his teachers. All the adults and students around him noticed changes in his attitude, behavior, and school performance; but, no one attempted any direct intervention. His favorite teacher came to me with the information that Jerline was acting in unusual ways, misbehaving, disrupting classes, and refusing to do his school assignments. When I asked the teacher if he or anyone else had spoken with Jerline to ascertain the cause of his difficulties, he replied that no one had.
I sat down with Jerline to learn what was troubling him. What was causing him to pull away from the success he had been achieving in school? Jerline said abruptly, “I don’t care anymore.” I asked him what it was he didn’t care about. He turned to me and shouted, “I don’t care about school; it can’t help me anymore.”
Unbeknown to me, Jerline had recently been informed by his lawyer that he was facing twenty to forty-years in prison for his crime. I listened to Jerline speak, erratically, about the impact that twenty to forty years behind bars would have on his life, I realized that his irrational behavior was coming from his struggle to make sense of his destiny. Jerline was, for perhaps the first time in his life, finding that he cared deeply about all the things that would have been part of his life if it were not for his poor decision to commit a violent crime. He talked about family, fatherhood, marriage, working for a living, homeownership, and growing old. For Jerline, at that moment, his entire future was out of reach and unattainable.
Our conversation continued over the next several days. It was very important, to me, that Jerline have the opportunity to talk through and gain insight into his circumstances and come to some understanding of living and growing up in prison. In instances like this, many juvenile inmates attempt to jump mentally to the end of the prison sentence, as if it were just around the corner. In actuality, their path to the end of a prison sentence is usually a decades-long journey.
Jerline used these conversations to face up to the errors he had made and to try to grasp the fact that he would serve up to forty years of his life in prison. He knew he could not escape the punishment waiting for him. I tried my best to encourage him to continue his education as he grew to adulthood in prison. He embraced my message to continue his schooling, learn to be resourceful, and try to avoid the many pitfalls of prison life. Eventually, Jerline received a sentence of seventeen to thirty-four years. His final words to me, before being transferred from the Philadelphia Prison System to a state correctional institution, were, “Thank you, I will be fine.”
The School-to-Prison Pipeline Tunnels Through Alternative Education
By Hilderbrand Pelzer III
Author of Unlocking Potential
Bryant was charged with murder for strangling and killing his roommate at a Philadelphia psychiatric facility, where he was a resident receiving treatment for his serious mental and behavioral health disorders. Who would have thought that Bryant was capable of such a vicious crime? Who would have thought he posed a significant danger to himself and others around him?
Prior to Bryant’s fatal act of aggression toward his roommate and his eventual trip to prison for committing a murder, he was a public education student who was “sent” to an alternative school because he violated the student code of conduct. Before sending Bryant to an alternative school, there was no real regard for his mental state. Nor was there any regard for whether the alternative school that he was sent to was conducive to the type of teaching and learning support he so desperately needed. Oh well, it doesn’t matter! The zero-tolerance policy prevails. Bryant was out of his regular school setting and sent to an alternative school to never be heard from again. Now, he is in prison!
How many other students, like Bryant, find themselves in an alternative school for a student code of conduct infraction instead of in a school that can provide them with deliberate teaching and learning and care for their mental and behavioral health disorders?
It is a common practice of many school districts across the nation to set up alternative schools just to have an “educational setting” to dump their student code of conduct violators, despite the fact that their actions may be caused by a mental and behavioral health disorder.
In 2012, school districts should be more knowledgeable about the value of alternative education. It adds to the public educational experience by advancing a number of exciting school models and approaches to teaching and learning. With the growing public dissatisfaction with traditional public schools, parents and students are looking for a different educational experience. They want an experience that offers a highly charged academic learning environment, small student-to-teacher ratios and class sizes, close relationships between students and teachers, and a stronger sense of school community. Instead, the design and function of alternative education is all wrong in many school districts. It is the lockup for students that other schools don’t want.
Too often alternative education practices perpetuate criminalization; hence, the school-to-prison pipeline. It is overpopulated with black and Latino boys. The terms behavior, discipline and alternative education are linked in holy matrimony. Students formerly adjudicated delinquents or currently involved in the juvenile justice system or assigned probation officers make up the typical student population. In fact, in many instance, judges and probation officers hold the most influence over students in alternative schools and, as a result, they typically attend school solely to appease the orders of judges and not the orders of their parents, teachers or principals. When the order is lifted, you usually see the school attendance for these students declining.
With the assembly line nature of sending students to an alternative education setting, the enrollment process in alternative schools is more chaotic and constantly compromises academic functions and instructional coherence. With an already growing enrollment of students who have violated the student code of conduct or who have been suspended for long-terms or who find themselves years behind academically, it is easy for alternative schools to get overpopulated and lose academic focus. The students’ mental and behavioral health disorders start taking over and teaching and learning takes a back seat.
Alternative education for the purpose of warehousing students is a major contributor to the widening achievement gap and educational disparities. It displaces the academic mission of schools at a time when all schools need to focus on each student’s academic development. It propels low performance through remedial and low-level teaching and learning experiences. It is not uncommon to find poorly skilled and underprepared teachers in alternative school classrooms. At every opportunity to fix alternative education, decision-makers have chosen not to change. They use the alternative education setting as the tunnel that hides students as they travel from the school to prison.
For the sake of public education, alternative education cannot continue to be the asylum where students with mental and behavioral health disorders are warehoused. While I will be the first to admit that schools must not tolerate poor behaviors or crimes inside schools, alternative education should not be tagged as the “educational setting” to accommodate students with mental and behavioral health disorders. Alternative education should be tagged as the “educational setting” that motivates, educates and inspires students to excel and achieve in school.
What do you think? I am sure there are other opinions out there. Please leave a comment and let me know what you think is a major contributor to the schools-to-prison pipeline.
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