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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.

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The second need a child must have answered so he or she can learn is a caring relationship with an adult who believes in them, Tate said. Thirdly, a child needs to have high expectations set for them.

“You establish a relationship based on expectations of success,” Tate said, describing the core direction she has given her staff at Dewey and at her other jobs in OUSD. “You build relationships with them they may have never had before.”

Eric Young, 18, who graduated from Dewey in 2011, is now an intern with the African American Male Achievement Initiative and has a job leading an after school program at MetWest High School.

While you’d never know it from his gentle ways and sincere eyes, Young was once the type of kid that statistically is likely to wind up in prison. He was often suspended from high school and even expelled from a couple. He was often in trouble, he said, because as he described it, he had to fend for himself from the age of 12 since "my family was struggling."

Young went to six different high schools in the four years from ninth to 12th grades, sometimes because of his family's instability and once or twice because he was "kicked out" of a school.

But Young likes to read and is adept at doing research online. When he arrived at Dewey Academy, some teachers noticed how smart he was.

“The teachers approached me because they kind of noticed I was focused," Young said. "One day, my English teacher Mr. Tinsen noticed I was reading a book, so he gave me some more books."

He said in his past experiences, teachers usually only approached him when something was wrong.

"I like to read and I like learning; it was just that school was something I was never into,” until he decided to get serious and until he went to Dewey, he said. At the same time, he had inwardly determined that he was going to succeed. And he did.

Oakland Unified has been looking at ways to turn out more kids like Smith and Young - to help kids overcome obstacles of poverty and family turmoil and graduate from high school with promises of jobs or higher education. OUSD wants to stem its high drop out rate of 37 percent - and 46 percent among low-income African American boys - and do a better job engaging high school students in learning.

The experiences of Smith and Young show, according to Tate, what kids can achieve when teachers and adult mentors give them individual attention and show genuine interest in their success.

Through its African American Male Achievement Initiative, through restorative justice programs and converting some campuses to Full Service Community Schools, OUSD is working towards its goals.

Chris Chatmon, director of the initiative, said among the most effective pieces in the program is Manhood Development Classes, in which students are paired with adults who become their guides and mentors.

"It is amazing what we have been able to achieve,” Chatmon said of the program that provides kids with individual attention and coaching. “We saw an impact on attendance rates and a decrease in incidences of discipline. And then we saw improvement in grade point averages.”

That individual care, added with the practices of the restorative justice program that stresses repairing harm done rather than kicking kids out when things go wrong, have been turning around the mind set of students and teachers alike at Dewey, Castlemont High School, United for Success Middle School and other campuses where these programs have been tried.