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How Do We Break the School-to-Prison Pipeline?

Embracing the concept of restorative justice, a number of Oakland schools are fighting to upend the school-to-prison pipeline that plagues local communities.

Photo Credit: Angelo Gilardelli via


Nick Smith was shuttled from high school to high school in recent years, whenever a relative died or was shot.

When his mother died of cancer three years ago he moved from San Ramon Valley High School to San Leandro High so he could live with his older brother. When his brother was shot and killed, he moved to Oakland to live with another brother. By the time he got to Oakland Technical High School his senior year, he discovered he hadn't taken enough core academic courses to graduate. Nobody had counseled him to take the right classes; indeed he did not have any adult in his life he could turn to for advice.

“Teachers can’t interpret a student’s situation," Smith said of what it was like to be in school during all the rocky and sad events of the past few years. "They didn’t know what was going on.”

Adding to the wounds, staff at some of the high schools did not seem to expect much from him or care one way or another what happened to him.

”At San Leandro, they gave me just about all elective classes and hardly any core courses or A-G courses,” he recalled of his junior year. “They didn’t put me in any of the classes I was in at my other school.”

But despite the turmoil in his teen years, Smith succeeded.

The 18-year-old graduated last June from Dewey Academy high school where he was editor of the school newspaper and voted most likely to succeed by his classmates. The Oakland public high school is a small, close knit campus where students get a "second chance" to earn the credits they need to graduate.

Now Smith is a mentor in the the African American Male Achievement Initiative in the Oakland Unified School District and is taking classes at College of Alameda, having just completed a paid internship at Kaiser Permanente.

What made the difference in Nick's life that allowed him to persevere as a student despite losing his parent and being faced with violence and constant relocation? What does it take to break the school to prison pipeline that students from low income and troubled home lives often get pushed into?

“At Dewey, it wasn’t like teachers always telling you ‘I know you can do better.’ It was like 'I know you are smart and I believe in you.' That was different,” Smith said, when asked what gave him the strength to persevere. “We all supported each other - teachers and students.”

In a word, he found caring adults and mentors who believed in him while he attended school in a safe and secure environment. His natural intelligence and interest in learning were able to blossom when those mentors and teachers had high expectations of him.

Hattie Tate, one of his mentors as the former principal of Dewey and now department administrator for OUSD's Full Service Community Schools program, said kids need three essential things be able to learn and succeed.

“The first thing a child needs to be able to learn is to feel safe,” said Tate, describing a philosophy that has fueled her work in OUSD and is the subject of doctoral dissertation.

In neighborhoods where gunshots can be heard most nights and pimps lure or kidnap adolescents as they walk to school, some kids just do not feel safe. So Tate - who also is a transition coordinator for youth returning to school from the juvenile justice system - said the schools need to go above and beyond to make themselves safe havens for their students.