Yesterday, I met with more than an hour with two Bronx high school students in a great Fordham program called "The History Makers" to answer their questions about the School to Prison Pipeline. After I answered several questions they posed about drug policies, school discipline, race and class biases in law enforcement, and Michell Alexander's book "The New Jim Crow" the conversation turned to their own school experiences. What they said left me deeply depressed about what inner city students and students of color experience in all too many New York City public schools and charter schools.
Each of these young people attend a high school that is co-located in a building with many other schools, and their description of school conditions was a telling indictment of the "small schools movement" that was one key component of Gates financed school reform several years ago ( the young woman's school was in the Northeast Bronx; the young man's school was in the South Bronx near Yankee Stadium). They described schools which lacked access to gyms, theaters, art rooms and music facilities, thereby making it impossible to have quality arts programs as part of regularly daily activities and which had teams that met after school, but provided no daily or even weekly physical activity. Their school days consisted of a cycle classes and tests unbroken by anything which was enjoyable or made room for student creativity. They asked me "Do you think conditions like this encourage students to drop out of school and support the school to prison pipeline?" I could only answer "Yes."
They then described a stifling atmosphere of zero toleranace discipline policies. The young woman's school had metal detectors ( which she described as humiliaing every student in her building); the young man's did not but both schools appeared to literally suspend students at the drop of a hat. You could get suspended at the young womans school for having highlights in your hair or wearing hoop earings; in both schools, talking back to a teacher was a suspendable offense. The young man had been suspended, the young woman hadn't, but each had friends who been suspended so many times that they dropped out of school. They were enraged at how students in their schools were treated on a daily basis and I suggested they read a great book a former student ( Kathleen Nolan) had written called "Police in the Schools," set in a North Bronx high school that had been subdivided into several schools.
They then went on to complain that that anything enjoyable in their schools, from after school programs, to school trips, required students to put out their own money to participate in, thereby limiting participation. They described their schools as obsessed with academics, test scores and graduation rates to the exclusion of the things that might make students feel comfortable or actually enjoy their school experience. They were grateful for the opportunity to be prepared for college, but the price they were paying seemed very high, and they were appalled at how many of their classmates had rebelled against the stifling atmosphere ad had dropped out.
When the conversation ended, i felt tremendous admiration for these two young people and also a profound disappointment that they had been deprived of so many of the things that should be part of any child's school experience- arts, music, exercise, respectful treatment and freedom from institutionalized harassment by teachers, administrators, and school security.
"What you describe should be called 'The Prison to Prison Pipeline'" I told them as they prepared to leave. They agreed.
We hugged and promised to stay in touch
I am still angry at what they have to endure.