Edgar Matta-Galdames knows about the school-to-prison pipeline.
Not that the student at the Workshop School in West Philadelphia is in it himself. But he was once suspended for wearing a hoodie to school in violation of the dress code. That’s the kind of harsh discipline common in many urban schools that often has the effect of turning kids off to education altogether – and leading them on a trajectory that culminates in crime and incarceration.
His classmate Tyhiem Brown also knows about how minor incidents can escalate. While at Comegys Elementary, he once threw a wad of paper toward the trashcan and it hit the teacher instead. He vainly protested that it was unintentional and was suspended from school for three days.
Matta-Galdames and Brown were among students who participated at the beginning of the year in A Call to Action, a symposium on mass incarceration at the Workshop School. It was part of a project designed to draw attention to this problem.
The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. According to the Sentencing Project, about 2.2 million Americans are behind bars. Pennsylvania accounts for 85,000 of those inmates, with more than 8,000 coming from Philadelphia.
Researchers have found that the prison population increased by 500 percent over the last 40 years and have linked the surge to harsh drug policies, mandatory sentencing, the private prison industry, and high rates of recidivism among former offenders who have trouble reentering society.
Rebecca Coven, 10th-grade teacher at the Workshop School and coordinator of the symposium, was inspired to assign the students a project on mass incarceration after visiting Eastern State Penitentiary, a defunct prison now operating as a tourist attraction.
The school opened its doors to the public to see students’ multimedia presentations on factors leading to high rates of imprisonment and alternative methods of rehabilitation.
About 90 people attended the event, including students from Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber, District administrators, and community advocates.
The Workshop School uses a project-based curriculum, where students learn through long, complex assignments. Coven teamed up with another 10th-grade teacher, Katrina Clark, to create a project in which students would learn about different social issues as they examined mass incarceration. The project took eight weeks, and the symposium was its culmination.
“We really wanted students to take action and feel like they had a voice and they could make a change,” said Coven, who is in her first year at the school.
“This is an issue that affects them deeply. A lot of them know people who have been incarcerated or are incarcerated, and they feel really helpless. And we wanted students to understand that it is an institutional, a structural problem and they can make a difference.”
The students were split up into 12 groups of three to five students. Then, the group presentations were divided into a three-part program, taking place in three separate rooms, which guests viewed in 30-minute rotations. Each group offered a different perspective on its chosen topic, including the private prison industry, reentry and recidivism, the school-to-prison pipeline, the war on drugs, and sentencing.
Matta-Galdames, Brown, and Zakai Jones, all sophomores, were on one team. Because of their experiences, they focused on the school-to-prison pipeline and zero tolerance school discipline.
They set up a table with a presentation board displaying information on the negative impact of harsh school discipline and a laptop playing a video of each group member sharing his story of facing harsh punishment for a minor incident.
Matta-Galdames said he was suspended for violating the dress code when he was in 7th grade at Russell Conwell Middle School. Brown was a 7th grader at Comegys when the paper-throwing incident happened.
Jones’ story didn’t end in punishment, but the threat of arrest. After a teacher grabbed him by the arm to break up a fight between him and another student, he snatched his arm away, he said. At some point during the confrontation, the principal showed up and asked the teacher whether she wanted to press charges against Jones. The teacher declined.
Among the people stopping at the table was Tyler Wims, director of student leadership for the District. He was there on behalf of Superintendent William Hite, who was invited but couldn’t make it due to a scheduling conflict. Wims assured the students that Hite is invested in changing the circumstances contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline.
The group hopes to inspire schools “to use rehabilitation instead of retribution” when disciplining students, said Matta-Galdames, because days missed due to suspension can have negative effects on a student’s education.
“Instead of minor infractions [resulting in] suspensions and expulsions,” he said, “we can use detention and in-house suspensions. That way, they can be rehabilitated by teachers or counselors and they can keep up with their schoolwork so they don’t fall behind.”
James Elish, a political economics teacher at Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber, said his class is working on a similar assignment, in which students will learn about mass incarceration by creating their own correctional facility.
He said that the students were receptive to their peers and that he hopes they will incorporate some of the information they learned at the Workshop School symposium.
“The students expressed a deep appreciation for the care which many of the Workshop School presenters clearly put into their presentations,” said Elish. “For many students, the impact of mass incarceration is acutely real. To see other students engaged in critical analysis, and, more importantly, a search for real solutions, was inspiring, to say the least.”
Many students have incarcerated family members or friends. So this project was not just a grade, but also a chance to understand the world and its systems.