The Intentional (And Predictable) School-to-Prison Pipeline

Former U.S. Secretary of Education, Dr. John King, recently wrote a piece for the Baltimore Sun that particularly resonated with me. When I used to work as a bail interviewer in “The Roundhouse,” Philadelphia Police Department’s Headquarters, I met many of the young men that Dr. King described.

For many people in prison, incarceration is an all-too-predictable result of attending public schools in high needs communities where students consistently receive less: less access to effective teachers, less access to a well-rounded curriculum, less access to school counselors and less investment of resources.

Consider the ways the school-to-prison pipeline is fed by disparate school discipline practices for students of color. Theses disparities begin as early as pre-kindergarten, with African-American 4-year-olds more than three times as likely to be suspended in preschool as white students. Students’ individual agency of course matters, but, as a nation, we cannot deny that systemic biases and barriers disproportionately impact the life chances of young people of color in particular.

As a bail interviewer, I would make bail recommendations to judges based on a formula that included education levels and stability. While I interviewed these detainees, I would also conduct my own informal survey. My main two questions were:

  1. Were you beat as a child? (more on that in a future blog)
  2. What was your final school and last completed grade?

The question of last grade completed was a standard question, but rarely were my interviewees in possession of a high school diploma. These arrestees, were often attending schools that they did not finish, assigned work that they didn’t understand, and felt hopeless and trapped in schools in high-needs communities, where they needed more support, not less.

They were attending mostly schools in Black and Latino communities. They attended schools with less resources and support. And, while schools cannot serve as the sole bulwark against all inequities oppressing our communities, committed schools and conscious staff can stand as bold and unswerving lighthouses against crashing waves of inequity.

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.


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