Pre-K education may be prison prevention

OPINION -- High quality early childhood education programs can increase likelihood of high school graduation and employment; reduce welfare dependence, school dropout rates, and crime.

When the principal introduced me to “Akil,” a lazy-eyed 6 year old enrolled in a kindergarten class at Martin Luther King, Jr. elementary school in West Oakland, I knew I’d been gone too long. I’ll never forget him.

“That’s Akil,” said the principal. “He doesn’t speak. It’s not that he’s mute or anything. He just stopped talking. No one has heard him since last year.”

Akil may have stopped talking but his often-violent acts towards other children were his way of screaming for attention and help. He would spit at other children, knocked books off shelves, yanked television cords from the wall, wrote on the chalkboard, threw things at other children, and hit them constantly. He did all this without uttering a single syllable.

I knew he was only doing what had been done to him by adults but each day during my substitute teaching stint in Oakland’s public school system, Akil was a reminder of a nagging question. What can be done to make sure that all kids, particularly black boys, enter kindergarten prepared to succeed?

The answer is complex and goes beyond simply relying on Head Start, our chronically under-funded national pre-kindergarten program. And even though more than 40 states offer pre-k programs, largely for 4 year olds, the demand for enrollment often exceeds capacity. Add to this a gulf of disparities in health, education, and employment among some of the parents of under-achieving black boys and the picture can be pretty bleak.

Even in states such as California and Maryland, where a history of poorly performing public schools in cities like Oakland and Baltimore have prompted the rise of successful universal preschool programs, black boys – in comparison to their peers in other ethnic groups – are being left behind. Coincidentally, studies report that this target group may have the most to gain from pre-k education.

According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, high quality early childhood education programs can increase the likelihood of high school graduation and employment and reduce welfare dependence, school dropout rates, and crime. In fact, the Children’s Defense Fund’s campaign to stop the “cradle to prison pipeline” documents the fact that we can now clearly see a research-driven trajectory for boys like Akil.

Nationally, 1 in 3 black boys born in 2001 are at risk of imprisonment during their lifetime. This sad fact – determined by pre-k readiness and third grade reading scores, among other indicators – is used by corporations within the prison industrial complex to help gauge how many prisons they will build. Apparently there’s still some truth to that famous Malcolm X quote, “If you’re [born] black in America, you’re born in jail.” But this can also be used as motivation to support early childhood education and programs that are making long-term commitments to improve outcomes for black males.

One such program is the 2025 Campaign for Black Men and Boys, a national public policy and social action effort incubated by the Twenty-First Century Foundation and initially supported by the Ford Foundation. The multi-year, multi-city campaign posits one main question: “What can we do to impact the life of a black boy born in 2007 so that by the time he is 18, in the year 2025, his outcomes for success have significantly improved?”

The answers encompass making significant gains in health, employment, justice, fatherhood, and educational outcomes for black males. And of these, education, especially, pre-kindergarten, may be the most pivotal.

Twenty-First Century Foundation partnered with actor-director Mario Van Peebles and producer Karen Williams to create Bring Your “A” Game – a documentary film that, in Van Peebles’ words, “sheds light on the resilience and influence of black males” and provides a relevant social context to the challenges for quality education. The film will air on B.E.T. on Sept. 12, 2009.

In a recent address to the NAACP, President Obama voiced his support for early childhood education programs and challenged governors, even in these times of economic uncertainty, to make educational improvements a priority. “Today, some early learning programs are excellent. Some are mediocre. And some are wasting what studies show are – by far – a child’s most formative years,” said the president, whose stimulus bill has already begun to make good on his promise to pour $10 billion into pre-k programs.

But in my mind, government programs and funding to support universal preschool, while desperately needed to reduce the school “readiness gap” between low-income African Americans and whites, will only go so far. Shoring up educational gaps experienced by young black males will take the same kind of personal accountability and individual “do or die” mantra that propelled movements like civil rights or feminism in this country.

During my substitute teaching stint in Oakland’s public school system, there was never a counselor available to take children like Akil out of class to talk. There was never discussion about finding support for his mother, who was still battling substance-abuse issues. There was never a connection made between the substandard classroom in Oakland and the rising homicide rate in the city. The school administrators were too busy putting out fires to be concerned with how they ignited in the first place. Leadership and personal accountability were sorely absent.

By the time Akil stopped speaking in kindergarten, it’s likely that he was reacting to something that had happened to him during the most important cognitive stage of his life, his first five years. Would pre-school have made the difference? Perhaps, but with recent census data indicating that nearly 70% of black children live without a father in the home, amidst a host of other social and economic disparities, its clear that the crisis in public education requires more than an injection of federal dollars.

It requires all of us to think more broadly about the importance of pre-school. With the right mix of parental support, it could mean the difference between a child growing up to one day be measured for a cap and gown… or a prison uniform.

For more info about the 2025 Campaign for Black Men and Boys, please visit:

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