Children of the Incarcerated

April 1, 2007

As the prison population has soared, so too has the number of schoolchildren with one or both parents behind bars. These children show up in classrooms with social and emotional problems that hinder learning. Yet schools are often unaware of the problem and lack resources to help students.

Table of Contents

WebExtra: Measuring impact on test scores when mom goes to prison

Sarah Karp

A unique study that examines how Chicago Public Schools students whose mothers are behind bars perform in school paints a dire picture, yet concludes that the incarceration is not the breaking point in their academic lives.

"The end point of a lot of [other] problems is imprisonment," says researcher Rosa Cho, an assistant professor of education at Brown University. "The damage happens before the incarceration. By the time the parent is incarcerated it might be too late."

The study compares the school records of 3,362 children whose mothers were in prison or had a long-term...

Counseling for 'taboo subject'

Curtis Lawrence

More often than not, the first time social worker Rae Anne Alvarez learns that one of her elementary school students is weighted down with troubles at home is when the child is acting out at school. A classmate is hit or a teacher's lesson is sabotaged when the classroom is constantly disrupted.

Earlier this year, for instance, a 2nd-grader at Von Humboldt Elementary in West Town was making loud noises and slamming his books on the classroom floor. Later, Alvarez learned that the youngster had good reason for his anger. His father was doing time in prison.

Now, Alvarez won't...

Wanted: mentors and children

Sarah Karp

On an afternoon in late January, "Maxine" sits at a table at a neighborhood youth center with a thick roll of clear tape, methodically cutting pieces and trying to piece back together a book that she got from school, "Arthur Accused," that is falling apart.

Ever so often she glances out the window and taps her foot. She's waiting for her mentor, Ewa, to arrive.

"Sometimes, when she says she can't come and get me, I am mad for hours," Maxine says.

Like most mentors, Ewa takes Maxine out to movies, helps with homework or simply hangs out. But the program that brought...

Retiring principal on new mission

Sarah Karp

Betty Allen-Green, an elementary school principal in a rough West Side neighborhood, says she had never thought about whether some pupils at Herzl may have had a parent in prison. Then, one day two years ago, she joined members of her church on a ministry inside Cook County Jail.

"The first person I saw was the mother of one of my students," Allen-Green recalls. The next day at Herzl, Allen-Green pulled the student aside and mentioned that she had seen his mother. She also told him that his mother said she loved and missed him.

The conversation spurred a special relationship...

Knowledge, training lacking

Sarah Karp

CPS social workers do not know how many of their students have parents in prison, nor do they know exactly what to do for these children.

A Catalyst Chicago survey of 358 school social workers drew responses from 43 of them who represent 63 of the district's 600-plus schools. The lion's share of those who responded work in schools in South and West side communities that have a higher than average share of children with an incarcerated parent.

Key findings of the survey are:

* Half of school social workers estimate that at least 10 percent of their students have one...

Collateral damage to kids

Sarah Karp

"Andrea," a 10-year-old girl with a round face, covers her right eye with her hand as if she is hiding. Her cheeks become flushed. She says the other children tease her, saying, "Your mama this or your mama that."

"Some of them know and some of them don't," she says of the fact that her mother's in prison. But even if they don't know, Andrea says, when they mention her mom, it stings inside.

At these moments, she often starts to cry and the teacher sends her to the hall to calm down. "I just miss her," Andrea says softly.

Like Andrea, many children with a parent in...

With help from its national and state affiliates, the Chicago Teachers Union is planning a push to organize charter school teachers.

The American Federation of Teachers, which recently won teacher support to unionize seven charter schools in Florida, has sent national representative Rob Callahan to Chicago to spearhead the charter outreach campaign. (In addition to Florida, the AFT has organized charter school teachers in Maryland, New Jersey, New York State, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. New York City's local, the United Federation of Teachers, runs two charters.)

With help from its national and state affiliates, the Chicago Teachers Union is planning a push to organize charter school teachers. The American Federation of Teachers, which recently won teacher...
Read More

Almost 140 schools that were on probation last year are no longer on the list because their test scores rose in 2006, according to CPS data.

Following the delayed release of spring ISAT scores for 2006, CPS recently released the list of 46 elementary schools that will be on probation this year. A comparison with the previous year's list shows that 138 schools are now off probation.

Almost 140 schools that were on probation last year are no longer on the list because their test scores rose in 2006, according to CPS data. Following the delayed release of spring ISAT scores for...
Read More

Ask educators what it means for a child to arrive at school ready to learn, and most will run down a brief and well-worn list of essentials. Well fed. Decent, clean clothing. A good night's sleep. Kindergarten teachers will likely throw in a few pre-literacy skills—counts from 1 to 10, for instance, or recites the alphabet and knows how to hold a book correctly.

Ask educators what it means for a child to arrive at school ready to learn, and most will run down a brief and well-worn list of essentials. Well fed. Decent, clean clothing. A good night's sleep....
Read More

On March 20, Leslie Jacobs and Shenita Johnson Garrard described how New Orleans is striving to convert a failed, corrupt school system into a decentralized system of schools. With some 60 percent of its public school students enrolled in charter schools, New Orleans has the most school autonomy and competition of any district in the country.

On March 20, Leslie Jacobs and Shenita Johnson Garrard described how New Orleans is striving to convert a failed, corrupt school system into a decentralized system of schools. With some 60 percent of...
Read More

Chicago could net an extra $300 million under Gov. Rod Blagojevich's school funding proposal—a potential windfall for teachers, who will be negotiating a new contract this summer.

But the plan, which calls for a tax on business transactions, will face stiff opposition from business groups and tax-weary legislators. Without a cash infusion from the state, teachers will have to bargain with a district that aggressively toes the line on wages and benefits.

Chicago could net an extra $300 million under Gov. Rod Blagojevich's school funding proposal—a potential windfall for teachers, who will be negotiating a new contract this summer. But the plan, which...
Read More

Chicago Teachers Union President Marilyn Stewart and former president Deborah Lynch are trading barbs on the campaign trail leading up to a rematch of the contentious 2004 race that Stewart won on a razor-thin majority.

This year's May 18 contest comes just weeks before the current union contract expires on June 30, tossing the winner immediately into negotiations marked by rising health care costs, uncertain state funding and a continued boom in charter schools. At the same time, the union is looking to expand its reach by organizing teachers in charter schools.

Chicago Teachers Union President Marilyn Stewart and former president Deborah Lynch are trading barbs on the campaign trail leading up to a rematch of the contentious 2004 race that Stewart won on a...
Read More

As the Chicago Teachers Union election heats up in the city, union officials are busy in Springfield working to expand its power and protect its members.

The legislative agenda includes setting limits on charters and winning back bargaining rights lost in 1995 when Mayor Richard M. Daley won control of schools.

But recently, the teachers union scored a coup when the Illinois House passed a bill rescinding the long-standing requirement that Chicago Public Schools teachers live in the city. The proposal now goes before the Senate.

Charter limits

As the Chicago Teachers Union election heats up in the city, union officials are busy in Springfield working to expand its power and protect its members. The legislative agenda includes setting...
Read More

Chicago Public Schools will be hit this year with a record number of principal vacancies. One in five school leaders—120 systemwide—have notified the district that they will step down from their jobs at the end of the year, CPS reported in mid-March.

That's already a 71 percent increase over last year, when about 70 principals stepped down. And the number could climb even higher, since principals have until April 15 to notify the district that they will be leaving.

Chicago Public Schools will be hit this year with a record number of principal vacancies. One in five school leaders—120 systemwide—have notified the district that they will step down from their jobs...
Read More

Only 12 percent of high school students in Chicago Public Schools have taken advantage of their right not to have personal contact information forwarded to military recruiters, CPS data show.

Under a controversial policy enacted as part of the No Child Left Behind Act, school districts that receive federal funding must give military recruiters the same student contact information, as well as access to high school campuses, that is provided to college recruiters and potential employers.

Only 12 percent of high school students in Chicago Public Schools have taken advantage of their right not to have personal contact information forwarded to military recruiters, CPS data show. Under a...
Read More

SCHOOL TAKEOVER, CLOSING CPS officials are proposing that the Academy for Urban School Leadership take over Harvard Elementary in Greater Grand Crossing this fall, under a restructuring plan similar to that used this year at Sherman Elementary. Students will remain at Harvard and the Academy for Urban School Leadership will hire a new principal and teachers. Harvard is in the district's Area 14, the lowest-achieving area in the city, and has some 550 students; 99 percent are African-American and 95 percent are low-income. ...

SCHOOL TAKEOVER, CLOSING CPS officials are proposing that the Academy for Urban School Leadership take over Harvard Elementary in Greater Grand Crossing this fall, under a...
Read More

Economic policies that support work and boost income are a proven way to improve children's academic achievement, says Greg Duncan of Northwestern University. Duncan is co-author of the new book "Higher Ground: New Hope for the Working Poor and Their Children," on a three-year program instituted in Milwaukee in the mid-1990s. The New Hope Project provided 22 poor African-American and Hispanic families with jobs, wage supplements, subsidized health insurance and child care, then examined the economic and educational impact of these extra resources.

Economic policies that support work and boost income are a proven way to improve children's academic achievement, says Greg Duncan of Northwestern University. Duncan is co-author of the new book "...
Read More

llinois prison populations have more than doubled over the past 20 years, yet school officials have no idea how many students are affected, and advocates disagree about whether they should be identified.

There's no official count, yet one expert notes that some 2 percent of children in Chicago's public schools had a mom in prison.

llinois prison populations have more than doubled over the past 20 years, yet school officials have no idea how many students are affected, and advocates disagree about whether they should be...
Read More

It's the last day of Rainbows program at Von Humboldt Elementary this year and a dozen or so children are sitting in a circle in the school social worker's office. Two of the youngest are 1st-grade boys—one slight with a mop of golden brown hair; the other stocky with a buzz cut.

It's the last day of Rainbows program at Von Humboldt Elementary this year and a dozen or so children are sitting in a circle in the school social worker's office. Two of the youngest are 1st-grade...
Read More

Become a Catalyst member