In too many public schools across the country, the educational system functions more like a pipeline to prison than it does a bridge to opportunity.
This grim phenomenon was the focus of the 2019 Summer Educator Forum that was held in July by the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education.
During the three-day conference (known as CUESEF) on Pitt’s campus, more than 500 participants from around the world—including as far away as Turkey—explored the theme of “Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Reimagining Policies, Practices, and Politics in Education.” The discussions, which sometimes involved stories of heartbreak and other times stories of resilience and perseverance, involved teachers and educators, college faculty, community members, students, and also those who were formerly incarcerated.
The conference featured over 50 presentations, including such leading thinkers as:
Moderators – Clint Smith III, host of the podcasts “Justice in America” and “Pod Save the People,” and Crystal Laura, award winning author of the book Being Bad: My Baby Brother and the School-to-Prison Pipeline
Featured Panelists – Yolanda Sealy-Ruiz, Associate Professor of English Education at Teachers College, Columbia University; Marc Lamont Hill, BET web series "Black Coffee" host and award-winning journalist; Carla Shedd, Associate Professor of Sociology and Urban Education at The Graduate Center, City University of New York and award-winning author of Unequal City: Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Injustice; David Stovall, Professor of African American Studies and Criminology and Law and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago; and Mariame Kaba, Founder and Director of Project NIA
Featured Lunch Panel – Michelle Alexander, author of the best-selling book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and Judith Browne-Dianis, lawyer, professor and Executive Director of Advancement of The Advancement Project.
In her talk, Alexander mentioned that one of the “for-life” inmates she visited while researching her book was in the audience that day. The room erupted into applause.
Moments later, Alexander posed the question, “Rather than inflicting more violence on a child who has suffered, shouldn’t we be looking to reduce harm and to focus on transforming, healing, and restoring?”
Alexander also spoke about the importance of people effecting change from within their own schools.
“It is absolutely essentially for us to think about organizing right where you are in your school and to have a conversation with like-minded people about what is happening in our schools to see what we can do here to help young people in our schools,” Alexander told the audience.
“That requires the act of courage to speak the truth about their own experiences, what they witness, [and] how they themselves have been complicit, asking ‘Have I been thinking about my classroom in a way I’m not proud of?” said Alexander.
Other featured panels included the unique perspectives from three men who were sentenced to life in prison as youth—but have since been released from prison. There was also a student panel, led by high school student activist Kahlil Darden, creator of Young Black Motivated Kings and Queens (YBMKQ) of 1Hood Media.
Valerie Kinloch, the Renee and Richard Goldman Dean of the Pitt School of Education, opened the CUESEF conference by noting how its focus on restorative justice aligned with the school’s new mission-vision statement.
She shared the opening lines of the school’s mission-vision when she told the audience that the purpose of the Pitt School of Education was “to ignite learning, to strive for well-being for all, to commit to student, family and community success, and to strive for educational equity for all.”
The Heinz Endowments was the primary sponsor of the CUESEF conference. The sponsorship represented another example of how the Heinz Endowments supports the Center for Urban Education—as it also funds the Heinz Fellows Program, which is a year-long opportunity for individuals to work in urban schools in collaboration with teachers, staff and school leaders.
Many presenters at the CUESEF conference reminded the audience that it was impossible to do the work of dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline by themselves. Instead, it would take a collective effort.
“We are here not to problem solve but to gather information to better understand how the experience is situated in context of community, in context of mass incarceration, and in context of responsibility—and this is not something we can do alone,” said Alexander.
About the Center for Urban Education
In addition to the CUESEF Conference, the Center for Urban Education makes an impact through other programs, including the:
● Ready To Learn tutoring and mentoring program that supports students at the elementary, middle, and high school level
● Urban Scholars program that supports the experience of students in the Master of Arts in teaching program in teaching in diverse urban schools
● Lunch & Learn and #CUETalks speaker series in which scholars and other experts in education research discuss a wide range of issues