Keeping kids in school and out of trouble: Pilot program tested in Oakland schools shows success

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- A new intervention tested out in Oakland Unified schools shows promise in keeping students in school and out of the justice system.

The intervention led by Stanford University researchers is focused on disrupting the school to prison pipeline. Early findings show the program was incredibly effective in cutting down recidivism.

ABC7 News recently launched the Equity Report, an interactive tool viewers can use to look into inequities in five key categories where they live: housing, health, policing, environment, and education.

When it comes to education, the tool found Black and Latinx students across the Bay Area were disciplined far more than white students in the majority of school systems.

RELATED: 18x more likely to be suspended: Bay Area schools grapple with excessive discipline

Now, there's a solution that may be as simple as listening, learning, and developing a bond through one-on-one mentoring.

"I need more one-on-one time. I don't learn as fast as other kids."

"I'm a serious person about school and graduating."

These handwritten letters are filled with simple request and basic information a student wants the teacher to know about them.

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Black girls are six times more likely to be expelled, three times more likely to be suspended, and four times more likely to be arrested than white girls. The issue of school push-out leads to learning loss and ultimately incarceration.



Each letter is written by an OUSD student getting back into school after being detained and spending time in the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center.

"They said, essentially, 'I'm a good kid. I'm trying really hard, but it's difficult,'" said Greg Walton, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology at Stanford University.

The letters are a part of an intervention Walton led with the goal of reducing the likelihood middle and high school students will return to juvenile hall after release and disrupt the school to prison pipeline.

"These kids are predominantly African American boys, they are on average, about 15 or 16 years old... it's so easy to put them in a box," said Walton.

Of the 172 OUSD students detained who reentered Oakland Schools after being impacted by the juvenile justice system from June of 2020 to July 2021, 69% were Black and 25% identified as Latino, according to the district.

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The intervention was delivered as students reentered the classroom.

It involved describing the students' dreams, goals, and needs and also listening to stories from older kids who were once in their shoes, but managed to turn things around.

"I knew that coming back from juvie was going to be hard. Sometimes it felt like if I made one wrong step I'd be right back in jail. I knew I never wanted that," said one older student in an audio recording played for the students receiving the intervention.

The students were then asked to name an adult in the school who could help them achieve their goals.

RELATED: Bay Area school district grapples with learning loss among students of color, low-income households

That educator, faculty, or staff member then received a letter informing them they had been tapped for a special assignment.

"A student chose me? Somebody believes in what I do? It is a life-changing experience for the teacher and the student," said Hattie Tate, coordinator for justice-involved youth within OUSD.

Tate said the results from this intervention were inspiring.

"They felt seen and heard in a way like never before," she said.

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So how effective is it? Of the students who had their letter delivered to an adult in the high school and started receiving one-on-one attention, fewer than one-third had a run in with the juvenile justice system by the next semester.

Of those who didn't start receiving that one-on-one support, two-thirds committed another offense and found themselves once again detained and in the juvenile justice system by the next semester.

"It's about empowering students to know what they're capable of... so they can see that everybody makes mistakes. But making a mistake doesn't mean that you are a mistake," said Tate.

LEARN MORE: Explore the Equity Report

She said these early results are proof that every child is worth fighting for and that changing a young life may be as simple as listening and meeting them where they are.

"The hope is that this kind of practice can become the thing that we do when we welcome children back from juvenile detention," said Walton.

He emphasizes that the initial study was small in size, involving only 47 middle and high school students.

However, given the early success of the intervention, the team is now working on expanding the program throughout OUSD, San Francisco Unified School, and a school system in Sacramento.

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