The Common Good

Church Partnerships Working to Stop School-to-Prison Pipeline

Over the last few years we have heard much about the school to prison pipeline. According to the ACLU, it is:

 a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished and pushed out.

The Children’s Defense Fund argues that because of a lack of early childhood education and healthy beginnings, this epidemic begins before a child is old enough to enroll in school, defining the problem as the Cradle to Prison pipeline. Organizations such as the Advancement Project, the Legal Defense Fund, and many others too have defined the school-to-prison pipeline as just another level to the mass incarceration epidemic and one of the most disturbing injustices we face today.

We know that the pipeline is undergirded by Zero Tolerance policies, mass expulsions, unprecedented school arrests, inadequate school funding, and myriad other unjust policies that either criminalize our children or rob them of the resources they need to be successful. We also know that high-school dropout is certainly a station on the pipeline. In many urban centers the dropout rate hovers around 50 percent, and some data suggests 7,000 students drop out of school every day. What happens to kids that drop out of school?  Where do kids who are expelled end up? 

Prison. The way there varies. Some commit to crime  — some serious, mostly not (see: The New Jim Crow). Others are ushered off to prison instead of healthcare facilities, while others join gangs. I know from personal experience that joining gangs to survive is very real, and the most recent data from the FBI suggest that from 2007 to 2011, gang membership grew at a rate of 40 percent across the United States.

The school-to-prison pipeline is real, and as people of faith we have a responsibility to protect the dreams and futures of the most vulnerable among us — our children.

So what can we (must we) do? A safe and quality education is the key to preventing a child from a life of poverty, incarceration, and gang activity. There are several ways that churches across the country can engage the educational needs of children – young people looking for evidence that God cares about their future, children who need us to connect inspiration and motivation to mobilization.

As I like to say, “change is a contact sport,” and thankfully there are many examples of churches successfully engaging the most vulnerable children in our public schools helping to dismantle the school to prison pipeline.

In Ft. Lauderdale, Fla, Rev. Juana Jordan, pastor of Harris Chapel United Methodist Church, is building partnerships with junior high, high schools, and juvenile justice workers to keep students out of the criminal system. This past July, she successful engaged more than 100 students from the community for a conference that allowed young people to have their voices heard and hear from community leaders committed to meeting the needs of children.

In Chicago, Rev. Alvin Love, pastor of Lilydale First Baptist Church, is working with the high school across the street from his church. After seeing teenagers walking the streets of the community during school hours, Rev. Love contacted the school and learned that the young people he was seeing had been suspended. Rev. Love created a program that established an arrangement so that suspended students would be “suspended” to the church. The church gathers all the students’ classwork, helps the student complete assignments, and incorporates conflict resolution into the day. Ninety percent or more of the students suspended to the church are never suspended again. And keeping these students from wandering the streets during the day keeps them from being easy prey to gangs and tremendously lessens their chances of ending up in prison.

Rev. Matthew Watts, pastor of Grace Bible Church in Charleston, W.Va., established the HOPE Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization that empowers the inner city through spiritual renewal, education, employment, training, and economic development. Rev. Matthews is working with the American Federation of Teachers and other community leaders to meet the needs of students inside and outside the classroom.

One Church One School is another national organization working to connect churches with schools in their community. One Church One School creates community partnerships that teach children to value life and learning. This national network of church/school partnerships also acts as a catalyst to build bridges between other community-based organizations, social service agencies, business enterprises, and schools – effectively aiming to lessen high school dropout.

At Faith for Change we are doing our part as well by creating the Graduation Ministry. This resource helps churches make their congregations “no dropout zones.” Churches are equipped with the skills to identify: every school represented in the congregation, the requirements of each school for promotion to the next grade, graduation and attendance requirements, and the students’ performance in every subject area. By tracking performance and working with schools to make sure every child is succeeding, the church is able to have a measurable impact on dropout prevention.

In addition to the Graduation Ministry, Faith for Change has created the “Blueprint for Success.” The Blueprint program helps students and young people on the verge of giving up create strategic life plans and “knock the dust off of their dreams.” The strategic plan begins with writing a personal life vision statement that addresses career and how a young person sees engaging their family, friendships, and community service. The goal is to help students see that their dreams are attainable and have a written plan that can been tweaked along the way. Identifying purpose, having a plan, and seeking the support of others inspires determination and defeats the despair that perpetuates the cradle-to-prison pipeline.

Churches across the country are finding ways to make a practical and quantifiable difference in the lives of students, but we need more people who believe that “God can do anything but fail” to show up and keep students from failing. The word of God compels us not to be spiritual spectators sitting on the sidelines watching children live in despair. If programs are progress and policy is power, we need a lot more programs while we work to overcome the powers and principalities in the high places of the political process.

What we do for children defines who we will be come as a church. We have the ability to be the light that guides children out of the darkness of despair into the light of determination and God’s plan for their lives. Do not be dismayed by the scope of the problem or overwhelmed due to the high level of need. There will always be concerns about volunteers, budgets, and the ever-present question “do need another ministry?” Two things we should remember:

1.   “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. (Phil 4:6)

2.   Habakkuk 2:2 says, “write the VISION,” not write the budget.

As the body of Christ called to spread the good news of the Gospel, we have an obligation to show the most vulnerable children that the God we serve cares about their futures. We have the responsibility and the power to protect the dreams of our children through our work to dismantle the cradle-to-prison pipeline.

Romal Tune is the Founding Executive Director of Faith for Change.

This post was featured in Sojourners' monthly Faith in Action newsletter, which you can join by clicking here.

Image: School-to-prison pipeline illustration, Lightspring / Shutterstock.com

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