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Demanding Education as Opportunity When Prison is Viewed as a Home

By Emma Swabb, Washington and Lee University (2017)

It was the first Wednesday of the mandatory summer program at Washington Jesuit Academy (WJA), and I was sitting at a desk grading diagnostic tests. These pre-tests had been given on Monday, the first day of class, to Mrs. Brower’s seventh grade language arts class and would help us determine where each individual stood academically and who needed review on specific topics. One of the questions asked students to come up with a list of ten nouns that could be considered living quarters, and the example given was “home.” Students scrawled words including house, apartment, condo, cabin, flat, etc. I was surprised when I came across one student’s answers; the first noun Reggie listed on the lines provided was “prison.” Despite my study of developmental psychology and research on the pervasive and multifaceted issue of mass incarceration in our country, I was taken aback. Never had I experienced the two topics in such close and potent proximity. Upon further consideration of this moment, however, I realized that my initial reaction was naïve. After all, I was going to be teaching and interacting with middle school boys from low-income communities in Washington, DC, 96 percent of whom were African American. Statistically speaking, it is an unfortunate reality that the men who fill our nation’s prisons, or who are under some form of correctional control, match the age, class, and racial demographics of my students’ older brothers, cousins, uncles, and fathers.

Emma Schwabb (W&L 2017) interned at the Washington Jesuit Academy in Washington, DC.

Emma Swabb interned in 2015 at the Washington Jesuit Academy in Washington, DC. Pictured with WJA teachers at the Potomac Overlook Regional Park.

WJA is a unique school for a number of reasons. It is a privately funded middle school for boys in grades five through eight from low-income communities. Its small class sizes allow teachers and counselors to get to know each student and his family. In order to attend the school, students must, among other things, qualify for the Free and Reduced Lunch Program. This means that a student’s family income is at or below 130 percent of the poverty level. Every young man who attends the school does so with a full scholarship. WJA operates on an extended year model, meaning it has an 11-month school year that includes the mandatory summer program. This program consists of three academic periods in the morning followed by recreational activities in the afternoon. Depending on the day of the week, students attend field trips, go to their chosen clubs, or participate in recreational sports outside. The summer program is meant to prevent the ‘summer slide’ that often occurs for students living in low-income communities. Academic classes and free reading periods in the summer are designed to help students continue to achieve and maintain the educational gains they have made during the school year. During the regular school year, WJA operates on an extended-day model. Students are required to attend a study hall after the school day ends and complete most or all of their homework assignments. Students also eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the school.

Before entering the classroom each period, students shake the teacher’s hand, look him or her in the eye, and say, “Good morning.” At first, this seemed an odd routine, certainly nothing I’d ever done in school. As I thought about it more, I realized that this routine is important, a simple gesture vital for fostering students’ soft skills. To look someone in the eye and to greet him or her, even if we are not in the mood, accentuates communication as well as social and interpersonal skills necessary for multiple areas of life. Students are also held accountable for their absences. I got in the habit of asking students, even those I didn’t have in class, “I didn’t see you around yesterday, why weren’t you here?” This sort of individual attention and soft skill training may be absent in the home lives of students, especially those coming from difficult family situations.

Alumni participation, whether they just graduated in May or they are now entering college, is strong. They come back to work out at the gym, help the summer program staff, or just hang out and play basketball with the students. They know the doors are open at WJA, and they respond. I cannot imagine voluntarily going back to my middle school to hang out. This alumni participation subtly shows the current students how special WJA is for their older role models. WJA truly seems to be students’ home away from home.

Positive reinforcement is the norm at WJA. Each student is often reminded that he has the potential to be a great leader, role model, and contributing member of society. The headmaster, Marcus Washington, delivered an articulate, inspiring, yet informal speech to the new and returning fifth and sixth graders in July. He told them about how he attained his present position and what it takes to succeed in life even if you start out with a perceived disadvantage. A fellow DC native, Mr. Washington told the students about the fate of some of his friends who took a different path. Unfortunately, some of his closest childhood friends are in prison or have been victims of gun violence. He carefully explained the expectations that he and the teachers have for the students. Each student is held to higher standards than he would be at his old school. The bar is high at WJA, but it is not unreasonable, and the benefits of staying the course are plentiful.

The young men are expected to learn and live what it means to be “Men for Others.” “Men for others” do what is right at all times, even when no one is watching. They are “willing to be courageous, just in their actions and active in their acceptance of God, their gifts, and others.” The school seeks to help form respectful, confident young men who are willing to be caring, contributing members of their communities. Students form good study habits, get into good, private high schools in the DC area, and then often go on to college. WJA boasts a 98% high school graduation rate of its alumni, which is nearly two times the graduation rate for young men of color in DC. Middle school is a time when students begin to determine their academic and social habits. WJA reminds the young men to be themselves, resist negative peer pressure, and set a good example for the younger students. Those who work hard and commit themselves to excellence form positive, lasting relationships with teachers, coaches, staff members, and their peers.

Students at WJA  are expected to learn and live what it means to be “Men for Others.”

Students at WJA are expected to learn and live what it means to be “Men for Others.”

I chose an internship as a teaching assistant at this progressive school with specific goals in mind. As a psychology major and poverty minor, I wanted to glean more about how our education system, from an early age, either positively or negatively affects young men of color. These young men are too often the subjects of conversation when we talk about crime and poverty in our nation. Second, I wanted to see how it would feel to be a teacher for middle school boys. I was accepted into the Teach For America Corps as a junior, and wanted to know if I could do this job. Would I be comfortable in this kind of classroom? My father spent his entire 35-year career teaching English to students at an inner city high school, and I wanted a glimpse into the career of an educator. As the daughter and niece of teachers, I have the utmost respect for those who make it their life’s work to spread knowledge, sow seeds of passion, and impart wisdom to students. My respect and appreciation for the work that educators do has increased. I worked with individuals and small groups, assisted with the art club and racecar club, and chaperoned field trips. I also learned that I have the patience to effectively teach middle school boys. But, more important, I learned that it is fun. I truly had a great time getting to know an amazing group of young men whom I hope will become the leaders and role models I know they can be.

I knew even before this internship that young men like Reggie are too often surrounded by negative influences. This summer afforded me the opportunity to work at an institution that actively seeks to ensure that its students choose a different path that avoids these negative influences. Although my reaction to Reggie’s answer on his diagnostic test was naïve, it was a proper reaction that needs to inform all of us. I believe that we should all be disturbed to realize that young men of color consider “prison” to be just another place to live – to be a synonym for “home.” The recent trend of citizens and politicians to reexamine some of our nation’s most deeply held beliefs about the intersection of crime, punishment, educational opportunity, mental health, and race bode well. When we draw a critical eye to some of our naïve assumptions about opportunity and behavior, such as equality before the law and access to education, we have a chance to live up to our promises. WJA demonstrates that we can identify and change the numerous systems that herd young, African American men from low-income communities into prisons. WJA shows that we can end the “school-to-prison pipeline,” once and for all. My internship at the Washington Jesuit Academy, a school whose model is at the forefront of changing urban education and its outcomes, allowed me to hope for overcoming this injustice and also to learn that I can be a part of the process.


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