Who is responsible for our children’s education? Parents? Schools? Most would probably quickly agree that these parties are of paramount importance in insuring the education of future generations. However, what if businesses, faith-based groups, and non-profits were added to that list? What if there was community-wide shared responsibility for education?
Norcross high school is ranked 8th in Georgia. It boasts numerous athletic state championships, and is an International Baccalaureate World School — carrying a rigorous curriculum track that attracts students from other districts across Gwinnett County. However, only 70% of NHS students graduated in 2012.
At first glance, many would be shocked at this reality. How does a school of this undeniable high academic quality produce a graduation rate barely above the state average (69.72% in 2012)? In order to fairly answer that question, it helps go a few layers deeper into school data.
The Norcross cluster served just under 12,000 students in the 2011-2012 school year, of which 25% were classified as English learners and 72% as economically disadvantaged. The state averages for those classifications are 5% and 57%, respectively. This reveals a valuable insight: there are complexities impeding education that are rooted outside of the classroom. Given the external factors in place, Norcross is truly doing a phenomenal job at educating our children.
Demographic trends show that these emerging complexities are only growing in scope. So what is the solution?
You probably guessed it…that old “ it takes a village” cliché; except with a bit of a twist. Granted, the parent and teacher have a bit different role than the town blacksmith, but the blacksmith should still have a great interest in the education of his future clientele.
Because a community is impacted by its schools (e.g., property values, attractiveness to employers, etc), it should take a vested interest in their performance. As evidenced by the Strive Partnership in Cincinnati, OH, cross-sector community investment in education is proven to effect significant change in educational outcomes. They have adopted a philosophy of varied accountability, but a fully shared responsibility.
Breakthrough Communities is GCO’s approach to taking the proverbial bull by the horns in the Norcross school cluster. We believe that by establishing a community-wide common agenda, participating in mutually reinforcing activities, utilizing shared data measures, and implementing continuous improvement, we can see the systems of support changed for our students.
Imagine how student performance could be changed if after school programs, summer day camps, community based mentoring efforts, tutoring initiatives, and teachers were all watching the same numbers, and each one knew exactly how their efforts played an integral role in improving those numbers.
What if, through a collective alignment of efforts, the Norcross High graduation rate increased to 90%? Don’t you think that the benefit of that change would impact more than the additional graduates and their families? The represented cohort of 195 graduates would increase the gross state product by $3.1 million each year and spend an additional $215,000 each year exclusively on purchasing vehicles.
So, next time you read an article or hear a news report that is blasting poor school performance, stop and ask yourself two questions: 1) What is the rest of the story behind the alleged poor performance numbers? 2) How can you be a part of changing the future realities for students?
Recently, the Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO) conducted its second working group meeting on the issue of prisoner reentry. Working group members traveled from across the metro-Atlanta area to convene with like-minded professionals who desire to see prisoners succeed in reentering society. The members come from a variety of professional backgrounds, including criminal justice agencies, various non-profits, addiction recovery, research, and reentry consulting (not to mention one member is a former prisoner himself).
Employment is the first area of focus that we chose to address as a working group. This was a logical place to start because of the critical role employment plays in the successful reintegration of offenders. For starters, having a job enables ex-offenders to meet their basic needs for food, housing, clothing, and transportation. Secondly, it affords them the means to meet various obligations that they may have, including paying child support, court fees, damages, and restitution. Last but not least, work provides offenders with an important sense of purpose, accomplishment, and worth which are essential for human thriving. For all of these reasons, having a job and maintaining it is one of the strongest antidotes for recidivism.
However, getting a job is not that easy for a person coming out of a prison. One of the main reasons for this is due to the fact that he carries an unattractive criminal record.
Each time an ex-offender seeks a job, he must face the dreaded question “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”
It is precisely his response to this question that will most likely disqualify him from the job that he seeks. It is not likely that he will get a chance to explain his arrest or conviction to the employer before he is screened from the pool of applicants. All the ex-offender wants is the opportunity to demonstrate that he is the right man for the job, but the box on the application keeps him from showing the employer the extent to which he is qualified.
It would be easy to condemn employers for not hiring more ex-offenders, but we also must consider their point of view. Employers desire to hire the best possible candidates for positions that they are trying to fill, and they may reasonably feel that a college graduate better suits a given position than a 30-year-old ex-offender with no prior work experience. Employers want workers who have demonstrated success, who have proven their reliability, who will represent their company well, who are effective at managing their time, and who can appropriately handle stressful situations. They want problem-solvers, and they have little patience for problem-creators. If they have reason to believe that an ex-offender may create issues in the workplace because of her history, it is understandable why they would show reserve in hiring her.
However, without considering an ex-offender’s qualifications, the obstacles she has overcome, and the potential that she offers, an employer is cutting both himself and the ex-offender short.
In automatically screening those with a criminal history from the pool of applicants and labeling them as a liability to the company, an employer could be passing up his best employee. Many offenders are itching to prove themselves to employers, to their families, and to the community, and they will go to great lengths to do just that. They want to demonstrate that their lives have been turned around; they want to show that they can provide for the needs of their families; they want a shot at redemption.
In discussing this reality, the working group agreed that employers should take three things into consideration in order to ensure a fair hiring process. These include the nature of the crime committed and its relation to the position sought, the amount of time that has elapsed since the crime, and the qualifications of the ex-offender in reference to the job. By taking these criteria into account, the employer can assess the risk that the ex-offender may pose to her company, while also evaluating the value that he would bring.
Finally, the group discussed the benefits that could occur by an employer postponing the question about criminal history until after the interview is conducted. This policy would be good for several reasons: It would allow the ex-offender to put his best foot forward during the job interview; it would enable the employer to critically evaluate the applicant’s qualifications independent of his record; and finally, it would give the ex-offender a chance to explain his felony conviction in person. This process would promote fairer hiring practices and would greatly enhance an ex-offender’s opportunity of getting a job.
And in a world of seemingly insurmountable odds, ex-offenders need all the opportunity that they can get.
• Roberta Meyers, Ray P. McClain, and Lewis Maltby, “Best Practice Standards: The Proper Use of Criminal Records in Hiring,” The Legal Action Center, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and National Workrights Institute, 2013, http://www.lac.org/doc_library/lac/publications/Best_Practices_Standards_-_The_Proper_Use_of_Criminal_Records_in_Hiring.pdf.
• Paul Samuels and Debbie Mukamal, “After Prison: Roadblocks to Reentry. A Report on State Legal Barriers Facing People with Criminal Records,” A Report by the Legal Action Center, 2004, http://www.lac.org/roadblocks-to-reentry/upload/lacreport/LAC_PrintReport.pdf.
• Margaret Colgate Love, “Relief from the Collateral Consequences of a Criminal Conviction: A State-by-State Resource Guide,” Prepared with support from an Open Society Institute fellowship, October 2005, http://blogs.law.columbia.edu/4cs/files/2008/11/statebystaterelieffromcccc.pdf.
• “How to Cut Prison Costs” New York Times, November 10, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/11/opinion/sunday/how-to-cut-prison-costs.html.
As a delivery consultant with Georgia Center for Opportunity I have recently been engaged with an inspirational organization named Every Woman Works (EWW), located in Sandy Springs, Georgia. EWW can technically be described as an organization that provides training in a safe, therapeutic and supportive environment where women who are recovering from addictions, in transition from the penal system, recovering from domestic violence, living in poverty, or homeless, have an opportunity to develop solid, transferable work skills to strengthen their sense of self confidence and to obtain financial independence. However, it is so much more than that.
When you walk through the door of EWW, you are warmly greeted by staff members who wear yellow and black, the colors of their bee logo, and a lovely bee brooch. Multiple affectionate hugs are bestowed upon you, as employees have a daily hug quota. Each day’s training begins with an “Hour of Empowerment”, a blend of inspirational speaking, singing and dancing; and yes, you will sing and you will dance. The positive energy is intoxicating.
Then there are the “students”, the vulnerable women who are served by EWW. As you begin to hear their stories of struggle and triumph, one after the other, your heart softens and often weeps. EWW changes the hearts, minds and ultimately the lives of so many women who come, desperate to be free of their pain and insecurity. The process is initiated through love and acceptance and ends in accomplishment and confidence.
Miss Tillie, EWW’s Executive Director, asked me to participate in their annual fundraising event, Stars Dancing to Change Lives. How could I say “no”? Although I am no star, I am currently training with a professional dance partner, Buddy Stotts, and will dance on Saturday, October 5th. Each dancer is raising funds for EWW through donation “votes”, sponsorships and event ticket sales. If you would like to support this incredible organization, please visit starsdancingtochangelives.org and vote for your favorite dancers by offering a donation. In fact, a vote for Linda Newton and Buddy Stotts would be much appreciated.
When I tell people that part of my work involves heading up a project on prisoner reentry reform, I’m often met by puzzled looks. Given my organization’s other work – including fighting for education reform and school choice, encouraging stronger families, and combating human trafficking, etc. – many understandably wonder where prisoner reentry fits.
On the surface the answer is not necessarily obvious but, once I explain what motivates our work, the connection normally becomes clearer.
Over the last decade, part of our work involved efforts to strengthen families in the inner city through helping community leaders improve family life by offering workshops on relationship skills, conflict resolution, financial management, and similar topics to people in the community. The thinking – supported by the evidence and common sense – is that if you can improve relationships among family and community members, you can help improve many of the social problems people face. When you do this kind of work in the inner city, you quickly find that you can’t strengthen families there very successfully without also addressing the impact of incarceration, which too many inner-city families experience – especially in Georgia.
In 2009, the Pew Center on the States released a study showing that Georgia led the country with 1 in 13 adults under some form of correctional supervision. Nationally, the number is 1 in 31. The Georgia number includes some 56,000 prisoners and 160,000 probationers. Annually an average of 20,000 prisoners are released and, as our experience in inner-city Atlanta confirmed, most are not prepared to be successful outside the prison walls. Of those released nationally, nearly 65 percent will be re-arrested in three years and, in Georgia, about 30 percent will find themselves back in prison within that time.
That is why we launched our prisoner reentry working group in July after many months of research, dozens of interviews, and visits to four state prison facilities. Our nine working group members consist of individuals with considerable expertise in Georgia’s correctional system and a strong interest in improving outcomes for prisoners returning to the community. The working group will meet monthly over the next year to develop policy and service related recommendations on ways our state can improve prisoner reentry to reduce recidivism while improving positive outcomes for prisoners (like job attainment and retention, housing stability, and staying sober and drug-free, among others).
During our first meeting, the group quickly decided upon several broad areas of focus for their work over the next year. Those areas include
- Employment: Looking at ways to remove barriers to and increase opportunities for prisoners to obtain and retain employment upon release
- Reentry Courts: Exploring how the state might create courts that specialize in working with prisoners as they are reentering the community
- Transitional Centers: Finding ways to increase the capacity of Georgia’s transitional centers to serve more people and looking at whether centers specialized to work with specific kinds of offenders could be more effective in reducing recidivism
While each of these topics is large, the working group is committed to zeroing in on very specific, common sense ways to improve each area that offer the greatest potential for measurable improvement.
In the coming weeks, we will be posting updates on the working group’s progress. Needless to say, we are encouraged by the work the group has done so far and by the level of commitment each person has shown in improving outcomes for reentering prisoners.