“Each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built.”

Brandon Stanton's photo of Vidal Chastanet from HONY
Brandon Stanton’s photo of Vidal Chastanet from HONY

By Christopher Zoukis

Those are the words of young Brooklynite, Vidal Chastanet, describing on Humans of New York (HONY) how his teacher, Nadia Lopez, explains the importance of education for individual and social well-being.  While we generally focus on prison education initiatives on this blog, we would be remiss to not include to mention the continuation of a story that went viral earlier this year. In fact, no story more poignantly highlights the intersects between marginalization, education, and prison than this one.

The full quote is as follows, and it may just have sparked an education revolution:

“My principal, Ms. Lopez. When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.”

The Ms. Lopez Vidal is referring to, is the founder of Mott Hall Bridges Academy, a school she opened in 2010 in Brownsville, Brooklyn—recognized as one of the poorest areas in New York.  When the quote went viral this past February, Lopez been ready to call it quits—overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenges she faced and the institutionalized barriers that mean for every graduate of Mott Hall, there are thousands more students left out in the cold.

But the world is fortunate indeed that she did not resign, and she is working towards expanding her vision nationally. At a recent TED talk, she announced, “I opened a school to close a prison.” And that, in a nutshell, is precisely why I do what I do as well. Each effort we make to improve the education of inmates is with the specific view to emptying a prison cell and ensuring it remains so permanently.

Lopez’s central focus is to put an end to the “school-to-prison pipeline,” meaning a system that treats young students like criminal offenders, rather than pupils who need instruction and guidance. In practical terms, it sees students suspended and expelled for offences that, in the past, might have merited a detention. The unintended result is this: “Students who are forced out of school for disruptive behavior are usually sent back to the origin of their angst and unhappiness—their home environments or their neighborhoods, which are filled with negative influence. Those who are forced out for smaller offenses become hardened, confused, embittered. Those who are unnecessarily forced out of school become stigmatized and fall behind in their studies; many eventually decide to drop out of school altogether, and many others commit crimes in their communities.” 

The pipeline has become some pervasive that US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has identified its social and financial cost to the country, the latter potentially reaching $15 billion. Duncan spoke of his own role in building that pipeline as a superintendant involved in the enforcement of zero tolerance policies in Chicago: “’Those calls to the police, to put kids in jail? We were making them,’ the [Duncan’s] speech reads. ‘We were responsible. We had met the enemy, and it was us.’” 

And it’s no secret that the impacts are being disproportionately felt in communities of color, neither is it in question that we spend more as a country on incarceration than we do on education—all the while ignoring the causal relationship between the two. In that same vein, Minneapolis education officials announced this week the “Office of Black Male Student Achievement” to help close the pipeline in their city.  In doing so, they’ve recognized that the racial disparity is a function of the system, not simply its by-product. 

I want to live in a world where I no longer have to advocate for the necessity of prison education, because our young people have been afforded, each and every one of them, the opportunities they deserve. I want to live in a world where our prisons are artifacts of the past and that pipeline is irreparably broken. I want to live in that society where every child knows that they do matter. And I am grateful to the Ms. Lopez’ of the world (and there are many) that are helping us to get there. 

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