Time to shut off the school-house-to-jail-house pipeline — with reading

This column aspires to bring urgent attention to one of the most, if not the most, important paths in the primary developmental years of young people: birth to pre-adolescence.


I will borrow from the advocacy of Frederick Douglass, a former slave and unique presidential adviser, who bought his own freedom out of slavery: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

This Douglass philosophy resides in my mind daily, and still holds true today. Shutting down the “dropout-to-prison pipeline” and building usefulness in today’s young people must become a national education and community imperative.

The cradle-to-grave mindset suggests that parents need to be thinking about and embracing a productive path for their children from birth.

I realize college is the furthest thing from a new parent’s mind. But in the blink of an eye, that baby is a senior in high school.

The Douglass philosophy rings with the same decibels of urgency, if not louder, today as it did back when he so convincingly appealed to President Lincoln to free his people from the bondage of slavery. He advocated education to sustain the skills of freedom.


This path from cradle to college implies a change in direction from another path that leads young people to a premature exit from high school – and, too often, on to prison.

This alternate path must be laid out by parents, schools and civic leaders, collaborating to alter the path from school dropout to prison drop-in. The old path must be replaced with a 21st-century path that ensures the making of a quality of life supported by well-educated, industrious men and women.

The South Carolina House of Representatives recently passed a bill called the “Stop the School House to Jail House Pipeline Act.” It calls for a committee to be formed to make recommendations to lawmakers to reduce the number of juveniles that are processed through the juvenile court system – the path to prison, essentially.


The strong encouragement for parents to adopt a mindset that creates a favorable destination for their children the moment they are born does not ignore childhood and all the amenities of childhood. The nature of this strong, urgent encouragement is to create in parents a mind to nurture the development of their children from the earliest start. If this cradle-to-college mindset can gain traction in the minds and movements of parents and civic-minded leaders, we can eliminate the need for the growth and expansion of the prison system.

Just imagine the good these human and financial resources can do toward the further advancement for a higher quality of life in society.

On the pre-jailhouse side of this situation is this major contributor to the problem: poor reading skills of elementary schoolchildren. If a student is not reading independently by the end of second grade, the student is likely to perform poorly in the grades that follow.


Studies have shown that students who become dropouts actually drop out of school emotionally as early as third grade. They drop out physically usually before the 11th grade. Needless to say, a student must have an independent proficiency in reading to experience any level of academic success in other subjects. Reading is fundamental.

Professionally, I have studied this problem for more than three decades and have observed the negative impact the lack of reading independence has on a student’s self-image, not to mention academic success.

I have documented that students measure their level of smartness or intelligence by assessing their own ability to read in comparison to their peers.

I have observed in classrooms students watching their peers read with ease, and dropping their heads in despair when they are called upon to read aloud. This is the inaugural moment of school failure and the road to dropping out of high school.

Conquering this one major problem can shut down the “dropout-to-prison pipeline.” A number of states use the reading scores of their second-graders to project the number of prison cells and beds they will need to have 10 years out. Sadly, the projections have plausibility.

A very strong skills-based reading program from the very start of school through the eighth grade is necessary. I believe this will be an effective way to eliminate the need for prison beds as a destination lounge for our children.


The writer – a former superintendent of schools for the Richmond County Board of Education – is executive director of Horse Creek Academy charter school in Aiken, S.C.



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