Fixing a broken educational system: A public forum on the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Lauren Pongan August 20, 2015 0
Ida B. Wells School for Social Justice co-founder and teacher Rogelio Rigor speaks to the panel at  the July 29 public forum, “The School-to-Prison Pipeline: Education, not Criminalization of our Youth.” • Photo by Lauren Pongan

Ida B. Wells School for Social Justice co-founder and teacher Rogelio Rigor speaks to the panel at the July 29 public forum, “The School-to-Prison Pipeline: Education, not Criminalization of our Youth.” • Photo by Lauren Pongan

The full parking lot spilling over onto nearby neighborhood streets was a good indication that the July 29 public forum, “The School-to-Prison Pipeline: Education, not Criminalization of our Youth,” was well attended. In addition to occupying every seat in the NewHolly Gathering Hall, forum attendees lined the walls, entranceways and even open floor space. Some who were too far to be able to hear filled the hallways to have their own relevant discussions.

The meeting, sponsored by both King County and the City of Seattle, addressed Recommendation Area 3 of the King County Youth Action Plan (YAP) Task Force: stopping the “School-to-Prison Pipeline.” This Recommendation calls on “the County and its partners to support preventative practices and programs that reduce the likelihood of contact with the juvenile justice system.” The transition from school to prison is an issue seen to primarily affect immigrant youth and youth of color.

This Recommendation is especially relevant in the context of the recent controversial closing of the Middle College High School for Social Justice and Community Engagement at High Point, and the displacement of teacher and co-founder Rogelio Rigor from the Ida B. Wells Middle College for Social Justice. The two middle colleges primarily serve students of color.

Many see these and other issues of education and access for communities of color as particularly poignant because of the County Council’s recent approval of a contract to construct a new, $210 million voter-approved juvenile detention center in Seattle.

In February and the preceding months, protestors objected, arguing that the juvenile detention system disproportionally incarcerates black youth, and other youth of color. In 2012, King County juvenile detention data showed that 42% of incarcerated youth in Seattle were Africa American, though they comprise only 7.7% of King County’s youth. Many called for the reallocation of the youth detention center funds for youth education and social services programs. The detention center is due to be completed in 2019.

UW Bothell Professor Wayne Au delivered his keynote speech, “Connections between disproportionality in discipline and achievement and school policies and practices,” which addressed some of the disparities in both graduation rates and disciplinary action. In both cases, students of color suffer disproportionally. A lack of administrators and teachers of color to serve as role models and leaders in educational communities, in addition to the use of suspensions and expulsions, are some of the problems Au cited.

A combination of seven councilmembers from King County and the City of Seattle were present and participated in the forum.

As panelist Dustin Washington of the American Friends Services Committee and the Tyree Scott Freedom School succinctly summarized, “Our kids are not broken; the system is broken.”

Another panelist, teacher Alonzo Ybarra from the recently closed Middle College High School at High Point noted that these “issues are a matter of life and death.” For at-risk students, especially students of color, Middle Colleges can be the final chance to graduate. High Point was closed in order to save revenue for the city, among other reasons, to which Ybarra responded that “Education isn’t a way to make money, but to figure out who you truly are.”

One of High Point Middle College’s graduates, fellow panel member Audreyanna Leatualii, said that “Without schools like Middle College, I wouldn’t be here right now.” Having struggled with food insecurity, homelessness, anxiety, and depression, Leatualii felt that Middle College was the only way she could have graduated. She chose High Point for its social justice based curriculum and feels that the school’s closure is a mistake.

Rogelio Rigor, one of those who testified, is a Filipino-American teacher who co-founded the Ida B. Wells Middle College for Social Justice eighteen years ago. He was recently and suddenly displaced as a teacher from the Wells School on a technicality of endorsements. “Wells is not a remedial program, but this pervasive punitive culture of extracting the curriculum by my sudden displacement for the sake of standardized curriculum is a farce,” he said.

Some of the themes that emerged in the public testimonies were a lack of people of color serving in school administrations, as role models, and involved in the disciplinary system; a need for community-based education and restorative justice; the exclusion from official state curricula of pedagogies that are culturally relevant to communities of color; and a need for a moratorium on the casual use of suspensions and expulsions in disciplinary matters.

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