Collaboration at center of keeping students in school after juvenile detention

Each morning begins the same way for Hattie Tate: She reviews a list of Oakland students at the local juvenile facility who have been booked, released or scheduled for a court appearance. For over a decade, her job as an educator and administrator has been to secure the quickest possible re-enrollment of students into their local schools once they are released from the juvenile facility.

But the re-enrollment process is rarely straightforward. The students that Tate works with have at times been in and out of the local juvenile justice system more than once, have experienced traumatic situations that can range from sexual assault to housing insecurity and sometimes have difficulty trusting adults.

By the time Tate meets them, school is rarely their priority. Plus, they may be missing school records, may have been enrolled in various schools, and may be facing resistance from their local public school to being re-enrolled. This means that her job includes figuring out ways to not only re-enroll them into school upon their release but to make sure they remain engaged in their classes and attend every day.

"I want the student going to school, not getting referrals, not getting suspended and passing classes," said Tate, whose job requires consistent collaboration with the Oakland Unified School District, Oakland's Department of Violence Prevention and the Alameda County Probation Department and the Behavioral Health Care Services department. "That's the only way we can measure success."

To do this, Tate's work stretches from pairing up life coaches with students to meeting one-on-one with a student going through a difficult experience to responding to a judge's questions about a student. It's a case-by-case job, in every sense of the word.

During the current school year, almost 140 students have been included in the daily list that Tate receives from the Probation Department, with more than 90 of them enrolled in Oakland Unified schools. The data does not capture whether any of those students have been re-arrested during this timeframe. The majority, almost 72%, are Black, and nearly 20% are Latino. They've spent anywhere from under 5 days in juvenile detention to over 50 days.

Tate is working alongside the Alameda County Office of Education to ensure the data is as accurate as possible, a challenging task. The data is part of a state requirement that districts report a student's enrollment status within 90 days of their release. 

Each of the students comes with a second set of data to help set them up for academic success: Tate can view their academic performance across various schools, their attendance rates, any trouble they may have gotten into at each school, if they've been detained in the past, and more.

It's this information that's particularly crucial to her work. Before connecting with a student, she can already begin to understand the reason behind their involvement in the justice system and the patterns and habits the student may have formed in relation to school. With this access, Tate can develop a plan to address students' individual needs.

"If you are working at a school with a person who's been in custody six times in their short teenage life, that helps you understand the trauma, and that I need to work with them to help them understand what education was designed to be for them," she said.

If a student's attendance in school was low even before their arrest, Tate can speak with the public defender assigned to them and try establishing a plan for addressing that before the student is released.

Braided into this work is the responsibility of changing how school staff see and treat students involved in the juvenile justice system. This aspect is so fundamental that in recent years Tate has worked alongside researchers from various universities in a study called Lifting The Bar about whether building a positive relationship between a system-involved student and an adult at their school would reduce recidivism rates.

The project resulted from previous research signaling that a teacher-student relationship may be "compromised by negative stereotypes that label youths as offenders and boys of color as violent and out of control," according to the research authors, who work at Stanford University, UC Berkeley, University of Michigan, and Ohio State University.

Such stereotypes can directly impact students' academic performance and attendance rates, sometimes leading students to drop out of school altogether, according to the researchers.

"When reentering school, youths have already been told that they do not belong, stereotypes are palpably on the table, and trust has been broken," the study's authors continued. "Even if students approach an educator with a positive mindset, they may not be well-received."

The process studied in the project includes having a student recently released from juvenile hall meet with Tate. During this meeting, the student listens to a pre-recorded audio of other students who were involved in the pilot version of this study sharing stories about their thoughts on school and how they were able to stay engaged.

"Importantly, the stories depicted the process of developing these relationships as hard, as not always successful, and as requiring persistence but ultimately as paying off," the study says.

The student is asked questions about the recordings, such as: "What is it that you want your teacher to know? What is it you need for success?"

The student then identifies an adult on their campus whom they can trust and writes that adult a letter about their personal background, their goals in school and the challenges they face academically.

One student, for example, wrote: "One thing I would like my teacher to know and she probably already knows this but is that I do work & it's good quality it's just that I have a problem with being consistent so I need help & my grades are important."

The conclusions from the small sample of students were incredibly promising: The process has been found to significantly improve trust between the student and the adult, and it led to lower recidivism rates among students.

The project has been funded for further research, which now includes more students and educators. An updated report is expected to be released this fall

"We attempt to set aside the bias in the mind of any adult in order to give a kid a clean slate and a chance to succeed with an adult advocating for them," Tate said. "There's somebody that gets the need for this student to feel safe and have a sense of belonging at school.

 While the study showed promise, the team has acknowledged it does not assess the long-term impacts of this practice. Subsequent research will include following up on students previously involved in the intervention practices they developed to better understand if the success continued in the students' lives

In her years doing this work, Tate has found that a student's disengagement from school is often due to external, traumatic factors that then trickle down to their inability to remain focused in their studies.

When asked for an example, Tate shared one that occurred this month. She had met privately with a student who just days earlier had told her teacher that she'd been raped a year ago. Between then and now, the student had become involved in the justice system and dropped out of school. Only once she was included in the list that Tate receives each morning was she re-enrolled into an alternative school in Oakland.

Within days of meeting privately with Tate, the student was paired with a life coach who is tasked with supporting the student while keeping her academically engaged and is being assessed for academic support services given her trauma.

Crucial to Tate's success is collaboration with other stakeholders in the students' lives.

"It's been a complete 100% pleasure working in partnership with the Probation Department, watching them change from being law enforcement officers to become the primary case manager for success," said Tate.

At the center of her work is the ultimate goal of creating a collaboration where the justice system can work in conjunction with the education system. Traditionally, the measure of success for system-involved youth has been different for each of these systems. While probation officers may be looking for consistent school attendance, educators may also want to see the student engaged in their education and with good grades.

"That is my life goal before I retire: that the systems are like conjoined twins, that they actually sit and work in the same manner," said Tate. "Because in the end, whatever is creating a lack of safety at school is going to end up being an incident on the justice side."