Why Send Newborn Babies to Prison If We Don't Have To?

Stop me if I told you this already. Oh, hah-hah, it's print, isn't it? You can't stop me. Well then just bear with me. In American schools, kids learn to read from kindergarten through the third grade. From fourth grade on, they read to learn.

Kids who can't read by fourth grade never really know what school is about. A book is a brick. A classroom is a jail. All teachers are boring.

Statistically and for the great mass of children, the ones who can't read at grade-level by the end of third grade are toast. Toast. Forget about it. Don't even tell me about remediation.

Yes, some kids can catch up with remedial instruction. But the money and the time are not there to do it on a mass scale. The kids most likely not to read at grade level go home every afternoon to corrosive environments anyway. Most of them are already on what The Children's Defense Fund calls the "cradle to prison pipeline."

Significant brain development is complete by about third grade. By the third grade, children know if they are mainstream people or marginal people. A 2011 national longitudinal study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that high school students who did not read at grade level in the third grade are four times more likely to drop out before graduation than those who did. One in three black and one in six Latino boys born in 2001 are at risk of imprisonment during their lifetimes.

Depressing, what? Yeah, but that's why I was so struck by what I thought was a bit of amazingly great news in the 2013 "Community Achievement Scorecard," a report on public schools in Dallas County just published by Commit!, a Dallas-based research and advocacy group.

Toward the end the report is a dot graph with one dot for each of 425 campuses. It measures two things -- the percentage of kids who read at grade level at the end of the third grade in each school and where that school falls on the poverty index.

Not surprisingly, as you move to the right and the campuses get poorer and poorer, the percentage of kids at third-grade reading proficiency falls. But, wait, the dots also spread out way more as you move to the right.

This is a point I think Commit! Director Todd Williams made to me at least a year ago, and I guess it sort of went in one ear and maybe out a nostril or something. The greatest spread in reading proficiency is at the poorest end of the scale.

So what? This what: that means some of the poorest school are way at the bottom of the proficiency index. But others are almost up at the top. What does that mean? It means everything.

Think about it, and let's just focus on the schools at the bottom of the poverty scale. Same demographic for all. We can assume, I think, that the same environmental and family issues are at work on all of these kids. So why are some entire schools way at the top of proficiency and others way at the bottom?

The schools! The schools are the difference. The teachers, the principals, the rest of the adults in that building, something they are doing is enough to profoundly change the destinies of these children.

All that stuff about everything being up to the parents, all of those arguments about demographics being destiny, all of those stories about kids who can't be taught: none of that is true.

Look at it again. Same kids. Same demographics. Same social and family dynamics. But some schools bring them to grade-level reading proficiency at the end of the third grade, making them into little mainstream people and not little marginal people, taking them out of the cradle to prison pipeline. And some schools do not.

Somebody knows how to do it. Somebody is doing it here in Dallas County.

The Commit! chart has a legend at the top that says, "Identify school practices that are creating an environment of outlier student success." That means go to the successful schools, see how they do it and carry that lesson to the failed schools.

The failures are real, and the consequences are horrific. Those Children's Defense Fund numbers mean that you and I could get an ink stamp, go down to the maternity ward right now, walk down through the rows of babies and stamp "PRISON" on the forehead of every third black baby. If we could find a hospital where all of of the black babies were poor, we could stamp it on most of them. And that does not have to be. We know how to snatch those babies up off that horrible conveyor belt and save a hell of a lot of them.

When I finished reading the Commit! report, I sat for a long while and thought about how focusing on failure lets us all off the hook, because if we look only at the failed schools we can tell ourselves nothing can be done. Might as well go back to the ballgame.

But if we force ourselves to look at the successful schools and we see that nothing is inevitable and everything can be done, then how can we live with ourselves until every single baby that can be rescued has been rescued?

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze