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Resolving problems for students with imprisoned parents

Students with incarcerated parents are usually minorities and live in poverty
Students from Project WHAT! (We’re Here and Talking), a program that hires San Francisco teens with incarcerated parents to lead trainings and presentations for school administrators, staff and students.

More than 5 million American children face a rarely discussed educational challenge that has profound impact: seeing a parent spend time in prison.

One in four black children in 2014 had a parent behind bars by the time they were 14 years old—more than double the rate for black children born in 1978, according to the book Children of the Prison Boom: Mass Incarceration and the Future of American Inequality (Oxford University Press, 2013). Black students are 7.5 times more likely than are white students to have a parent in prison.

Students with incarcerated parents are usually minorities, have parents who didn’t graduate high school and are living in poverty, says Kristin Turney, associate professor of sociology at University of California Irvine.

A growing body of research shows that children with an incarcerated parent are less likely to graduate from high school and go on to college. They are also more likely than their peers to have behavioral problems, be held back in the early grades and be placed into special education.

Finding solutions

A handful of programs nationwide seek to ease the academic and emotional challenges for students with incarcerated parents.

In San Francisco, nearly 18,000 young people had a parent who spent time in either county jail or state prison in 2010, according to the city’s Department of Children, Youth and Families. Project WHAT! (We’re Here and Talking) hires city teens ages 14 to 18 with incarcerated parents to lead trainings and presentations to school staff and students. They answer questions about the challenges of having a parent in jail and the extra services required to help students cope.

The goal is also to inform policy change in schools to better provide educational and social services for this population.

“It’s exciting for these students to feel empowered—they get to stand in front of these folks with power over how their schools function, and know that their voice counts,” says Jamie Gerber, program coordinator of Project WHAT!, which has delivered nearly 100 training sessions in 14 counties in California and seven states since launching in 2006.

All San Francisco USD middle and high school counselors participated in Project WHAT! sessions in 2014-15. And this past March, the San Francisco USD board of education voted to spend an estimated $105,000 on more staff training, curriculum and services for students with jailed parents. The district also plans to hire a case manager to be a liaison between parents in prison and their children and teachers in the district.

The district’s annual Youth Behavior Risk Survey will ask students specifically about parental incarceration so they’re more likely to get the help they need.

Building policies

Schools are not typically informed if a student has an incarcerated parent, unless the student tells a teacher or administrator. It’s important for teachers and administrators to spend one-on-one time with students to better understand their home lives and the particular challenges they face, Turney says.

Project WHAT! offers the following tips for communicating with this population of students:

  • The circumstances of a parent’s incarceration are irrelevant, so don’t ask. This can make a student feel judged.
  • Use books about other students going through a similar experience to show your students they are not alone.
  • Be careful when making generalizations about parents. Expecting both parents to come to parent-teacher nights—or assigning students to complete a family tree—can be painful for students with incarcerated parents.
  • Never speak ill of the student’s parent; allow the student to judge on their own.

Research on the subject is still growing, so it is difficult to build specific, universal policies to help this population, Turney says. At a basic level, administrators can ask students who come forward what would help them academically, Gerber says. “With this population, people make a lot of assumptions about how to help without actually asking them what they need,” Gerber says.

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