The School to Prison Pipeline

By: Isha Goel

100 out of the 128 public school buildings in New Orleans were destroyed by the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Katrina. During the city’s repair process, the local government saw this as an opportunity to restructure the New Orleans public school system. The plan set in motion sought to replace formerly locally controlled public schools with charter schools run by private organizations. By growing the charter school system, the New Orleans local government aimed to increase academic outcomes of the students in the city. In theory, this would be done in one of two ways. Since charter schools are privately owned but publicly funded, families were given the flexibility to have their children apply to any of these schools regardless of neighborhood school zonings. Additionally, charter schools emphasize greater individualized attention on students, which would contribute to better academic outcomes.

“They started bringing in primarily young white teachers who didn’t even really have their master’s in education,” says Kai Werder, the Deputy Director at the Center for Restorative Approaches (CRA), who gives insight into the reality of the development of the charter school system in New Orleans. “[These teachers] were coming into New Orleans, working in charter schools, and, in large part, taking over jobs of teachers who have been in the education system in New Orleans for many years because it was cheaper to pay them.”

While the rise of the New Orleans charter school system proportionally increased with the improvement of academic performance by students in the city, the establishment of charter schools remains controversial. On one hand, many people commend the charter school system for turning around academic outcomes of students in the school district. Many of these charter schools saw increases in standardized test scores, graduation rates, and overall school performance. On the other hand, many people consider the charter school system to be another failed reform that the city has had to endure. While academic improvements have been correlated with the increase in charter schools, many fail to acknowledge the change of demographics that the school systems underwent at this time. Due to evacuation response protocols, during Hurricane Katrina, many families had to evacuate and even relocate to other parts of the country. This relocation process changed the demographic makeup of the school systems upon the city’s restoration.

“Charter schools were expelling and suspending primarily black and brown youth at extremely high rates. [At] some schools, up to 80% of the students were experiencing punitive behavioral responses…We know, [by] living in the incarceration capital of the world, that the first step in the school to prison pipeline can be a suspension or an expulsion for a young person.”

Louisiana has held the position as the “incarceration capital of the world” for several decades. Harsh discipline measures, aimed towards younger adults, have great implications for their futures. This is especially true as Louisiana has claimed this title by a large margin; Louisiana imprisons more of its citizens than any of its other U.S. counterparts. Ranking the highest in rates of imprisonment in the U.S. also places Louisiana as having the highest rates in the world.

The CRA has taken extensive measures to combat the detrimental effects of this school reform. “We got some funding to be able to do whole schools restorative approaches implementation,” says Werber. What this entails is having CRA members conduct training within school systems that are centered around restorative approaches. This type of training is meant to better prepare teachers, administrators, and other school faculty members to respond to conflict and harm within the school with a restorative lens rather than a punitive one. “It also looked like having one of our facilitators on site…facilitating restorative circles and restorative intervention, in the moment, to keep kids in class, in school, connected with their community, and connected with their support system; instead of sending them home.”

Such interventions being carried out by CRA are making real life differences. “Our data shows that suspensions and expulsions reduced by as much as 75%, in schools that we worked with. It had a really large impact in keeping kids connected to their school system, says Werber.” 

Not only did the post Katrina school reform result in the transition to a predominately charter school-based school system, but it also led to cuts in many extracurricular programs. Music education programs, such as school marching bands, were one of the many extracurriculars that were cut. In New Orleans, where music plays such an important social and cultural role, cutting out music programs from schools only further reduces outcomes for students. In response to this education shortcoming, the organization The Roots of Music formed. Paul Colombo, the Faculty Advisor of The Roots of Music at Tulane University, gave insight into the history of this organization: “It was founded by Derrick Tabb and Allison Reinhardt. Derrick was a former drummer for Rebirth Brass Band [who] felt as though being in the band during his time in school was really important for him. It gave him opportunities to make money, for one thing, and it kept him off the streets. After Katrina, schools were cutting a lot of the music programs and he was concerned that as a result of that a lot of these kids just wouldn’t have the same opportunities he had. He started Roots of Music…after Katrina and it immediately was very popular.” 

Not only does The Roots of Music work to fill the void of music education in schools, but it also provides students with a social network that they may not have otherwise. “One of the things that was important to him was that instead of having it [held] at a school, he wanted [Roots of Music] to be held at a site where kids came from all the different neighborhoods,” says Colombo. “A lot of these kids are from low-income households. So, a lot of these kids have been exposed to all sorts of violence and trauma. A lot of them have lost siblings and parents; they have parents in the criminal justice system. They have been exposed to a lot.” For this reason, having more positive social interactions and a strong support network is incredibly important for these students. 

Additionally, “[Tabb] felt that [these interactions] were important because a lot of the drug dealing and violence that is around is territorial. He felt that if he could get people to know each other from the different wards, it could help that problem; he’s always claimed it’s a crime prevention program.” The idea of music programs and organizations, such as The Roots of Music, as a crime prevention program attests to how school systems can directly influence not only the education outcomes of kids but ultimately their fate with the prison system. 

Due to Professor Colombo’s background as a behavioral scientist, he sought to better understand the long-term effects of the Roots of Music program and other similar organizations. Colombo began a longitudinal study to better understand the effect on students enrolled in this program for different durations. 

“I was interested in not just that they were learning music, which was part of it, but other kinds of outcomes. In particular, changes in their development: brain development, emotional development, social development, [and] cognitive development. We find that in terms of self-efficacy, which is a feeling of agency or control over one’s life, there is a robust increase…as a result of the programing. Looking at the research, there are all sorts of improvements.” 

The prevalence of charter school systems is not unique to the New Orleans area or Louisiana and not all charter school systems lead to poor student outcomes and feed into the prison system. However, the extenuating circumstances caused by the implementation of charter schools, such as punitive punishments and cutting out extracurricular programs, in New Orleans have differentially impacted diverse students. For this reason, it is imperative that organizations such as CRA and The Roots of Music continue to implement interventions that have shown to mitigate the consequences of this school reform.


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