When you were in third grade, you probably weren’t putting in your reservation at a juvenile detention center. Yet, Dr. Cheryl Slattery, associate professor of teacher education, was horrified to discover that the urban Pennsylvania elementary school where she previously taught received inquiries about their third-grade classes for exactly that purpose.
The principal informed the staff that each year, a representative from juvenile probation called the school seeking information that would help them project the number of beds they might need when these eight-year-olds turned about sixteen. What were they asking? How many third-grade students were struggling in reading?
“It was a high percentage,” said Slattery, recalling the principal’s explanation of the correlation. “These students are very likely not to graduate from high school. When they don’t graduate from high school, what do they do? Possibly turn to a palpable life of crime.”
It was during her time as an elementary teacher twenty years ago that Slattery first was introduced to the school-to-prison pipeline. At that elementary school, she said 70 percent of the children received free or reduced lunch and 70 percent were Latino or African American and spoke English as a second language. Their school also was labeled one of the most at-risk area schools because of low academic performance and poverty.
2 out of 5 students who are not proficient in reading by third grade will likely drop out of high school.
She later discovered more troubling statistics: two out of five students who are not proficient in reading by third grade will likely drop out of high school. Statistics increase when students are poor, struggling in reading, and African American.
Slattery decided it was time to interrupt the pipeline. Leaning on her experience with early literacy programs in the community, she reached out to Stephanie Jirard, professor of criminal justice, last January to design a program that might save students from prison by using literacy as a vehicle. “My work has been to help struggling readers. I know what that looks like,” she said. “Stephanie is a criminal defense lawyer who worked with the Department of Justice. She knows what a life of crime looks like.”
According to Jirard, criminal justice research indicates that students with strong literacy skills are less likely to face discipline at school. “If a child cannot read, that child might have disciplinary problems in school. If a child of color has disciplinary problems in school, studies show they are more likely to be expelled or suspended, further exacerbating their poor school performance.
“Poor school performance begets a high dropout rate. Dropping out of school begets vulnerability to a life of crime. Committing crime begets a life in prison,” Jirard said.
Now realizing the powerful relationship between teacher education and criminal justice, Jirard worked with Slattery to create an exercise for middle school students that used multimedia to improve literacy.
During the summer of 2015, Jirard integrated social justice and mock trial to engage middle school students, discussing topics such as Ferguson, Malala Yousafzai, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Then Slattery taught these students how to appropriately discuss these issues using the concepts and vocabulary from class on social media.
That exercise became the prototype for their research proposal with younger children. Their goal was to use multicultural multimedia as a tool to improve literacy, providing one defense to the school-to-prison pipeline.
Their research focused on introducing teaching tools to parents of at-risk elementary school students. By partnering with a liaison for migrant workers in the Chambersburg area, they connected with several Latino and Haitian families who had children in kindergarten and first grade. According to Slattery, these families don’t have the materials or experience needed to teach their children literacy skills.
Jirard suggested using multicultural media as their teaching tools. They extracted vocabulary and comprehension questions from the lyrics of rap songs and the storylines of telenovelas, which are popular Latin American soap operas.
“We taught parents how to talk to their kids with these tools,” Slattery said. For example, one of the words from a telenovela was “limo.” Slattery explained that “limo” was short for “limousine,” then asked children to describe the vehicle using words such as big, long car. In the Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy,” Slattery asked them to point out words that rhyme with the word “happy” by changing the first letter. All of the necessary components needed to become a successful reader were presented to the families, she said.
“It’s about taking these things and teaching literacy skills. It’s about interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline,” she said.
To fix the problem, Jirard encourages the public to recognize that racial bias
in school discipline is a real issue. “All adults, including law enforcement, must educate themselves on the stages of child development and how to recognize and differentiate kids’ age-appropriate behavior with behavior that requires a disciplinary or criminal justice response.”
Slattery and Jirard presented their research at the National Council of Teachers of English and the Association of Literacy Educators and Researchers in November. They plan to continue and refine their workshops with both age groups and hope to compile their techniques as a resource to better serve youth living at or below the poverty line.
“This takes a lot of time and energy, but I love it,” Slattery said. “This work—working with families who live in poverty and interrupting this cycle—it feels like I started a new career. It’s incredibly challenging, but it’s necessary work.”