Insulating the Education Pipeline for Teens in the Justice System

Increasingly, I find myself representing “youth development” and “youth services” in education discussions where the primary focus is on improving high school and college graduation rates. The singular focus on preparing kids academically tends to ignore supports that are critical for many children in the education “pipeline” -- those in the juvenile justice system, for example. So I’ve honed a simple but effective way to get my minority views inserted into deep “education system” focused conversations about improving the education pipeline. Building on plumbing analogies, I’ve begun to talk about the importance of good insulation.

Most education pipeline discussions focus on taping and tightening the joints between pre-K and K-12, within K-12, and between K-12 and post-secondary education and training institutions to ensure a stronger flow of well-prepared young people into the workforce.  Current estimates suggest that only 19.7 percent of 9th graders attain post-secondary degrees. Proportionally few of these graduates are poor or minority students. While 23.7 percent of White high school graduates earn a four-year degree only 12.2 percent of African Americans and 6.7 percent of Hispanics attain a college degree. Among those with college degrees only 19 percent are children from low-income families compared to 76 percent from high socio-economic status (SES) families. (As one can imagine, these numbers are much worse for teens in trouble with the law.)

These statistics certainly demonstrate the need for “master plumbers.” But is pipe tape the only supply needed?  And are we sure we’re using the right kind of pipe?

Fourteen-plus years is a lot of pipe to travel.  Ensuring that all young people (emphasis on all) are ready for college (or training), work and life requires not only tight connections between the education segments but also between two layers of insulation familiar to communities implementing Reclaiming Futures. The first layer of insulation would be the community learning environment. This first layer includes multiple individuals and organizations (family, businesses, non-profits, faith-based organizations, libraries, etc.) that provide complementary, and at times, compensatory opportunities for learning and development. The second layer includes the multiple systems and services that support, protect and rehabilitate youth and their families.

All too often, the discussions about insulation, when they occur, focus on the first dozen years of life. It is clear, however, that there is fragmentation and inconsistency in supports and opportunities provided to young people, ages 14 to 26, especially those with limited natural family and neighborhood connections. That’s why the Forum for Youth Investment issued its Ready by 21 Challenge late last year: to help communities use Big Picture thinking to think differently about the problems youth face, unify scattered attempts to address those problems, and aim for (and achieve) big changes.
We hope your community will take the challenge – after all, both juvenile justice agencies and providers of adolescent treatment providers want stronger connections to the education system and better “insulation” for the kids they serve.

Karen Pittman is Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Forum for Youth Investment in Washington, DC.

Updated: February 08 2018