Jail as a Life Goal

Programs like City Year and Americorps can give children hope for the future but are currently threatened by budget cuts.

A 15-year-old Tulsa high school student described incarceration as his hope for the future. That’s right. His life goal was to go to jail because in jail he would have a bed to sleep in and food every day.

This young man’s goals are not much different from many students whose lives have been scarred by extreme poverty and family trauma. The young woman who told his story is a City Year member from Pennsylvania who is currently doing service in Tulsa Public Schools. She spoke at the Women’s Leadership Luncheon this week, which I had the pleasure of attending. Without her support, the boy was on target for his bleak future. He was failing math, not showing up at school and had no hope that he could do better. However, this young City Year member didn’t give up on him. She described how she slowly helped the boy master math and gain self-confidence. He began to believe that he could learn and that he could graduate and even go to college. She was the reason he came to school every day, and he was the reason that she got up early and stayed late every single day.

City Year is a federal public service program for young people between the ages of 18 and 25 who are assigned to work with at-risk students in schools throughout the United States, including Tulsa. You can recognize them by their bright red jackets.

I was already familiar with City Year because my daughter Anna was an AmeriCorps VISTA after graduating from college. She worked for a non-profit called AVANCE in Austin, TX, doing marketing, events and helping coordinate volunteers. City Year is under the AmeriCorps umbrella, and because AmeriCorps is a U.S. Federal Government program, AVANCE was able to have Anna as a full-time staff member without paying her. She could spend her time raising awareness about AVANCE in the Austin community, so the AVANCE staff could focus on their primary goal – helping Hispanic parents prepare their toddlers for school. With the idea that AmeriCorps and City Year members live at an economic level similar to those they serve, they receive a very small monthly stipend and a sum of money at the end of their service to help pay college loans or to put toward graduate school. They are not supposed to supplement their income with other jobs or income. I can attest to the fact that it was sometimes difficult for Anna living with three other people in a small house and trying to budget for food and bills.

City Year members specifically work in public schools in high-poverty areas to tutor, teach, motivate and sometimes just listen to students. The City Year member seated at my table at the luncheon talked about how much she loved tutoring and mentoring McClain Junior High 8th graders. She’s even signing up for another year because she feels the students need her – she hopes to be assigned to the same school in order to give the kids some consistency because many of the regular teachers are leaving the school. Sixth hour this year was the most unruly class, she said, and also the largest, with 30 students. But with two City Year members and a teacher, they were able to divide up the class and effectively reach most of the kids.

With budget cuts to education, programs like City Year are more important than ever. Class sizes keep growing, giving teachers less time with each student while most of them need more, especially in high-poverty areas. And, with more and more teachers leaving the state or the profession, Tulsa classrooms are often led by inexperienced people who have little training in pedagogy, child development and adolescent psychology, or curriculum development. The young people working through City Year can help provide individual help for struggling students that teachers don’t have time for, since many middle and high school teachers are managing almost 200 students a day with few resources.

Beyond the enormous support they provide for schools and non-profits, AmeriCorps members are the recipients of immeasurable work and leadership skills. Many of them will tell you that their year or years of service to their fellow U.S. citizens who happen to be less fortunate are the most important years of their lives. Visit the AmeriCorps Facebook page to see what past and present members say about their service.

Sadly, AmeriCorps is under the ax in the current federal budget, even though the savings would be miniscule. If AmeriCorps is defunded, City Year goes away, hitting Tulsa Public Schools with a double gut punch – no increase in school funding from the state, and, with no City Year, no help from those amazing, idealistic and energetic young people who are such wonderful role models, mentors and tutors for struggling children. The investment is so small; yet, the rewards are so great – more students succeeding and graduating to become productive citizens.

No child’s goal should be to go to jail.


Categories: Editor’s Blog