Lead First with the Heart
A blog about social justice and restorative practices in educational leadership
Last Friday I spent the day at Soledad State Prison with a group of teenage boys. The We Care program introduces young men with gang ties and drug abuse problems to inmates that were incarcerated as juveniles and have since dedicated their lives to preventing kids from making the same mistakes they did.
As the bus left school at 5AM I tried to clear my mind of all expectations. I’d never been inside an operational prison before and many of the people who knew I was going seemed displeased with the idea of bringing 13 and 14 year old kids into that kind of environment. What I soon learned, though, was that We Care is not Scared Straight, but a program emphasizing love, understanding, and compassion.
As we entered the Level 2 building students were zipped into orange jumpsuits, then asked “why are you here”? The kids were hesitant, their idea that this was going to somehow be a fun and exciting field trip quickly dissolved. Filipino inmate and We Care veteran Pau, who has served 21 years in a variety of California correctional facilities, filled the silence by telling the kids, “you are here because someone cares about you and wants a better future for you than the path you are headed down now.”
Throughout the trip that message was reinforced. Every We Care participant inside those walls has been incarcerated for more than a decade, many for gang crimes, and now dedicates his life to participating in a program with the goal of preventing kids from making the same mistakes he did. As the day went on, inmates took turns sharing stories with kids and often the look of understanding would cross a kid’s face as something hit them with the familiarity of their own personal situation.
Most of the twelve students on the trip have family members in gangs. Many have family members in prison, most have at least tried marijuana and alcohol if not brought it to school or distributed it to others. These kids are heading down a dark path. Punitive measures taken by administration do nothing to address the underlying causes of behavior problems at school, don’t take into account the trauma they are faced with at home, and, plain and simple, do not work. Some kids don’t understand where they will end up if this continues, some are sure it couldn’t possibly happen to them, and some don’t care enough about themselves or their future to try to change.
Along with a restorative approach to academic discipline, and an emphasis on kindness, positive culture, and respect at school, trips like this one can encourage students to see themselves in a different light and rethink the future (or lack thereof) that they might currently imagine for themselves.
After eating breakfast in the canteen surrounded by hundreds of self-segretated general population inmates, we toured the cellblocks, showers, warden’s office, and school, before ending up in the library for the last half of the day. This was the most valuable part of the trip, as inmates shared detailed accounts of what landed them behind bars, and small groups discussed in detail how these stories resonated with the students. As prisoners spoke I frequently saw the flicker of recognition on the faces of my kids. Whether they saw themselves or someone close to them in those stories, hearing them certainly impacted their perception of reality.
At the end of the two hour healing circles counseling session each student wrote down on a card some commitments they are going to make moving forward. This was the most emotional part of the day for me. My students took turns reading their commitments to me, cracking their tough-as-nails exteriors to open up their hearts, share their vulnerabilities, and promise to talk to someone who cares when there are things that need to be said. There were hugs. There were tears. As I signed each of their cards I reminded them that there will be slip ups and mistakes, but that when there are they can’t just give in and throw these all away. I kept a copy to always be able to remind them of this day and their commitments to change.
I am filled with awe and respect for the men I met at Soledad State Prison. After twenty plus years incarcerated in our state's inhumane prison system, they have straightened out and see their contribution to society working from the inside to help the hardest kids make strides to turn their lives around. I am extremely proud of my brave and brilliant students for their honesty and participation and cautiously optimistic for the changes they will make. This trip with these amazing kids was one of the most powerful and emotional experiences I've had as an educator.
PVUSD's Technology Director Tim Landeck shared an interesting article with me discussing the ways technology is being used in different communities and the do's and don'ts of technology integration in underserved communities. This article spoke to me in more ways than one, but my recently acquired understanding of budgets and LCAP in California public schools made me reflect on how we use devices in our district, what we can do better, and how the LCAP can support that.
At tonight's district board meeting I plan to speak on the need for instructional technology coaches at all school sites. Our district currently runs four 1:1 Chromebook initiatives, two at high schools and two at middle schools. Three of these four sites have full time technology integration ToSAs that are site funded. Because of the financial burden on sites, there is no long term plan for these coaches, but rather their focus has been simply to get the program off the ground.
I strongly feel that the district needs to support a full time ToSA at all secondary schools, and eventually at all schools.
My statement to the board: