Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline Starts Outside the Classroom

Chicago shows that the best way to keep young people out of jail is to make sure they’re staying busy

A graduation ceremony at Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School in Bradley, IL. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Americans today are deluged by a seemingly endless stream of horrible news. Wildfires. Hurricanes. Economic dislocation. Social unrest. Naked power grabs undermining hallowed institutions. All that amid a pandemic that has already taken 200,000 American lives, many of which might have been saved had the White House been even half-competent. The country at this moment could use something to cheer about. And while it’s not getting much attention, Chicago has some welcome news at the ready.

Consider this: Chicago Public Schools in 2020 boasted a record graduation rate of 82%, up from 56% just a decade ago, and the lowest ever dropout rate at 5.6%. That marks eight consecutive years of improvement in a district where 84% of students live at or below the poverty rate. Second, after Chicago in 2017 became the first and only school system in the country to make enrolling in college or community college, joining the armed forces, beginning a vocational program, or securing a job a prerequisite to receiving a high school diploma, 97.5% of last year’s graduating class walked secure in knowing what they were going to do next. Third, forthcoming data from the University of Chicago Crime Lab reveals that adolescent arrests dropped by 75% during the years the city made these educational gains, from 15,000 in 2010 to little more than 3,700 in 2019.

The biggest beneficiaries in each of these three trends were adolescents of color. Young men and women from Black and Hispanic backgrounds, primarily, made the biggest jumps in graduation rates and college enrollments and saw the biggest decline in arrests. But if you think these results were driven by the changes my mayoral administration made in the courtroom and the classroom, you’d be looking in all the wrong places. Without a doubt, I worked hard on both fronts from lengthening the school day and redesigning the city’s high school curriculum to decriminalizing marijuana. But a big part of Chicago’s success has been driven by a simple realization: Young people spend only 20 % of their time in school, meaning that 80% is spent elsewhere. So in thinking about how to break the school-to-prison pipeline, we decided to take a different tack: We would make a huge investment as a city in what happens before and after the school bell rings.

Without any federal help, and despite significant fiscal headwinds, we doubled our career-based summer jobs program from 14,500 to 33,000 positions, simultaneously requiring participants to sign a pledge committing themselves to enroll in college. Inspired by our city’s former first lady, Maggie Daley, we grew our after school program from around 65,000 to 110,000 youths and focused those afternoon hours on artistic expression, athletic activities, and academic programs designed to burnish their life skills.

And we partnered with the nonprofit Becoming a Man (BAM) to establish the largest citywide mentoring program in America, growing from 150 to 7,500 young men in just a few years. In the city’s 20 most challenging neighborhoods, young men now meet with a mentor for four hours a day, five days a week, nine months of the year, from 7th to 10th grades. Among those kids enrolled in BAM, there’s since been a 50% drop in arrests for violent crime, overall arrests have dropped by more than a third, and the on-time graduation rate has grown by almost a fifth.

Investing in young peoples’ “off hours” offers a pragmatic and enormously consequential way to end the school-to-prison pipeline.

These investments have dramatically reshaped our city’s classrooms, courtrooms, and our children’s futures. And that’s for a glaringly obvious reason: Without even thinking about it, middle-class parents invest vast sums nurturing their kids outside school. Summer camp. Little league. Soccer clubs. Piano lessons. SAT prep. That extra engagement gives those adolescents big advantages they maintain for life. It keeps them out of trouble. It provides them with additional caring adults in their lives. And all of that combines to give them a leg up in school.

Chicago simply wanted kids coming from poorer families to be afforded the same basic supports and opportunities. When cynics say that “those kids” from “that family” in “that sort of neighborhood” can’t achieve more, they rarely consider all the reasons why kids achieve. Millions of young men and women in this country wake up each morning presuming they won’t live to see their 21st birthday. So if we’re going to get them to begin asking themselves instead where they’ll be at 21, we need to provide them with the emotional connections and role models that are crucial to every adolescent’s development — supports that middle and upper adolescents often take for granted.

When the fog of Covid-19 lifts and kids return to their normal academic routines, adults shouldn’t return the rote, brain-dead, politically contentious policy debates that have stymied progress for decades. Beyond educational and criminal justice reform, investing in young peoples’ “off hours” offers a pragmatic and enormously consequential way to end the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s all borne from a simple and commonsense insight: If you want to see students succeed in the classroom, then you need to invest in their lives outside of school. That’s as true in urban America as it is in the suburbs. In a moment of national soul-searching, it’s a reason to hope and work for a better future.

Chicago’s 55th Mayor.

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