The pipeline

I never understood the school-to-prison pipeline until I began working in a charter school.

I think it’s harder to see it in a traditional public school.

At my traditional public school, the halls are loud, boisterous, chaotic, joyful. There are art projects and motivational posters on the walls (“Welcome to our school!” “Be kind!” “Recycle!”), and when the children move through the hallway they don’t so much walk as they do bounce. There is a buoyancy to being in my school – it’s light and fun.

At my public school, the walls are painted bright colors. The space is warm and engaging, but also, inexplicably, calming. My public school is a place where my students want to be. 

At my charter school there was no art on the walls – we couldn’t afford to hire an art teacher, and art projects were deemed “a waste of time” (even though we had an extended school day). “Art isn’t going to raise our test scores,” Administration proclaimed, “but more rigorous, direct instruction in math and ELA will.”

The bulletin boards in my charter school were used to display student work – often worksheets that were typed in 12-point, Times New Roman, graded in red pen, and displayed in neat, even rows on identical bulletin boards. At my charter school, all of the bulletin boards and data walls were required to look the same.

At my charter, the children were expected to walk on lines that were taped on the floor. The children were to walk in perfectly straight lines, with their arms directly at sides, not swinging. Their eyes must be facing forward, and there were to be no gaps in the line. The children were to be silent.

At my charter, the children were all dressed the same in heavily-branded uniforms, and both the walls and the floors were painted white to reflect the oppressive fluorescent lighting.

In my charter school, the walls were decorated with a different kind of motivational posters and quotes. 

“Practice Perfect Precision” 

“Excellence Always” 

“No Excuses”

“Sweat the Small Stuff”

My charter school was an Orwellian nightmare.

It’s like my students were expected to be made into corporate robots, widgets in a churning educational system. And when you squint your eyes just right, it’s hard to tell the difference between this charter school and a prison built for tiny convicts whose only crime was being born poor and of color.

“Sweating the small stuff” is charter school code for the petty laws used to police and control children of color.

“Sweating the small stuff” is an excuse to punish children of color for being children.

“Sweating the small stuff” is an excuse to send children spinning down a pipeline that ends in a jail cell.


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