American Graduate: Linkages

Dec 28, 2011

New Orleans' highly touted education reforms are receiving praise in the same newspapers that also highlight daily occurrences of flagrant violent acts committed by school-aged children. Signs of growth for students in reformed schools are encouraging. However, what innovations are provided for youth who have been pushed-out, dropped out or are otherwise disengaged from our educational systems?

Louisiana and New Orleans' historic high incarceration and expulsion rates have created a desperate need for linkages between non-traditional educational providers and criminal justice systems.

"I think it's unfortunate they're seen as such different systems and I think part of why YEP has created the programs we have created is because we understand that actually education and criminal justice engagement are so interconnected."

That's Melissa Sawyer, the Executive Director of the Youth Empowerment Project or YEP, a community based non-profit organization that provides intensive reintegration services to young people who were in secure and non-secure correctional facilities. However, YEP has expanded to provide preventative and adult educational services to those in need.

One such person is Terry White a 23-year-old participant in YEP's NOPLAY G.E.D. and Village programs. He learned about YEP after his discharge from jail. Terry wanted to receive an education and participate in the recovery of the city, but his age and reintegration needs made traditional school prohibitive. Terry like others in the program is responsive to the comprehensive services and intimate educational relationships he developed with instructors and counselors.

"NOPLAY, they really interact with you on a personal level as far as one-on-one help or they just help you with any problem that you're dealing with out of school as far as job readiness basically everything is just great over here like they really care. In real school they may act like they care but outside of school, they really don't."

Melissa Sawyer takes pride in how NOPLAY instructors cater to the unique needs of a large underserved segment of the population.

"We've given our instructors who are just amazing and really understand working with the young people we work with the freedom to really design engaging curriculum and to pull in innovative, hands-on approaches, doing a lot of field trips, doing some rites of passage work with some of the young men. So I think that we really try to take an innovative approach to insuring that young people's points of views and feedback and perceptions are really being included into the learning that they're doing."

Because per pupil expenditures do not follow school-aged youth to many of the organizations that are actually providing educational services, groups like YEP rely on external funding to serve students who have non-traditional needs. Adult education programs are brimming, but an expansion will require taxpayers, lawmakers and foundations to fund a conceptualization broader than K-12 schools. Dr. Peter Scharf, professor of Public Health at Tulane University, believes that budget priorities can change.

"What they need to do is to become much more sophisticated in building evidence for the case that for example education can reduce criminal justice costs To keep a kid in Jetson one of these schools in North Louisiana cost $499 a day. Can you believe that? You can go to Harvard Yale and Swarthmore in the same year and not spend that much money."

State officials are beginning from punishment to education frameworks. The economic and social costs associated with incarceration compelled Louisiana State Treasurer John Kennedy to consider providing sentencing credit, or making parole contingent upon a prisoner attaining a G.E.D. While working on his G.E.D., Terry began got a job with another dropout prevention program in the city.

"Through the Village Program I'm actually working with COCMP that's called the Circle of Courage Mentoring Program which Khalil Osiris created so we're actually working for them now as mentors at Swartz Alternative School across the river."

Adult education may get a successful criminal justice and education system on the same page of the newspaper.

Andre Perry is a researcher for the Loyola Institute for Quality and Equity in Education.

This report is part of American Graduate: Let's Make It Happen, a public media initiative made possible with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting