Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa checked into the county jail this fall with a video crew to tell a story. Not a scared-straight kind of tale, more like a remember-when one.
The six young inmates he interviewed were in for some bad things, top of the list murder, but other lesser crimes too. Still, most had a happy memory from school.
Deandre remembered Ms. Grace, his science teacher at an alternative school. “She was one of those black strong females wouldn’t take no mess. She always tried to keep me on the right path.”
Karla remembered a Ms. Ingram, who in elementary school visited Karla’s home, met her mother, brothers and sisters and “saw the struggles going on with my family – so when she would teach me, she would come at me a different way.”
But in the end, they also recalled, some to the moment, when they decided to drop out of school, a time when learning was trumped by something else.
“I felt like nobody was really paying attention to me and that on top of my mom getting sick — I just kind of gave up,” Tammy told Avossa as cameras rolled.
“Do you remember that moment when you said, ‘That’s it, I just can’t do this?’” Avossa asks.
“Yeah, actually my mom and I even discussed it. She said, ‘Tammy, I realize I’m not going to be around to see you graduate. What are you going to do?’ I told my mom, ‘I’m going to drop out and become a drug dealer.’ And she said, ‘Oh my gosh, what am I going to do?’
“We talked about it. And the decision I made I regret today, but I’m still young enough to change my life,” Tammy concludes.
Avossa spent several hours that day talking to the two women and four men seated in a jail classroom surrounded by computers. They in their dark brown and blue prison scrubs, he in a crisp button down.
The inmates are enrolled to get high school diplomas or recently earned a GED. The six interviewed dropped out of school in their teens and now range in age from 22 to 35.
They’re serving sentences for nearly two dozen crimes, ranging from dealing in stolen property and possessing pot to kidnapping, armed robbery and murder.
From these interviews, the Palm Beach County School District is creating multiple videos to play to different audiences – business leaders, teachers, principals and students.
“The video is a way for me to tell a story, not to discourage the community, just the opposite: to mobilize. Internally, it’s really about changing a mindset. We’ve got to get kids connected to the school,” Avossa said.
“They (the inmates) felt like they had a future.” And then they didn’t.
Last month, Avossa premiered a nearly eight-minute cut titled “Unlocking Potential, You can be the Key” to Leadership Palm Beach County, a gathering of the county’s movers and shakers in public, private and nonprofit enterprises that takes on local projects and works to become better versed in what makes the community tick.
He also showed it to about 100 high school teachers, who in turn said they’d like to show it to students. “We’re working on questions as guidance for that conversation,” Avossa said.
This month, the target audience is principals.
“When you saw them talking about their favorite teachers, the time they were happiest, almost all of them spoke to elementary teachers,” Avossa noted. In elementary school, teachers see fewer students and stick with them for most of the day.
But by high school, these students had lost connections.
While the district last spring celebrated its highest graduation rate in years with more than 82 percent of some 12,000 students landing a diploma on time, that left a couple of thousand still trying and about 600 dropped out, according to the state’s Department of Education. Each year, the cycle continues.
“In high school, if they aren’t connected to the school in a meaningful way, things can fall apart and nobody knows unless you’re in art, music or band where someone is really paying attention to you,” Avossa said. “And it’s not the teachers’ fault. They have 150 students. That’s a lot of kids.”
Deandre gave up when he was close to the finish line. “I was 18 in the 11th grade, and I just got sick and tired of seeing younger kids in the classroom because I stayed back once or twice.”
Said Karla: “I started getting sidetracked in middle school. I started trying to be in the ‘in’ crowd. I wasn’t really trying to focus.” Add that to problems at home, “I really wanted to stay, but I couldn’t ever reach out to a teacher.”
By her estimate, “I had no choice because I had to take care of my mother, brothers and sisters. I had to help my mom, you know, she was by herself … and she was sick.”
Not all dropouts wind up in jail, but in a 2006 reckoning from the Bureau of Justice Statistics about 75 percent incarcerated in the U.S. are dropouts.
The school district is trying to tackle those dropout numbers.
It is in the middle of a campaign to curb absences, flagging students at each school who have missed multiple days and may be in crisis.
It is reviewing its policies and trends when it comes to discipline, reflecting national concerns about the targeting of poor, minority students and the school-to-prison pipeline.
“I always go back to my own personal experience. My parents weren’t educated, they didn’t speak English, and yet we became naturalized citizens. We all graduated and went to college and did well. We didn’t come here with money. Why was my story different?” Avossa asks. “I got back to the structure. We went to church every week, we had aunts and uncles all around us. The system wasn’t overwhelmed.”
In Palm Beach County, more than 60 percent of the students are poor enough to qualify for federal free- and reduced-priced lunches. And the community resources that were once available aren’t any longer, Avossa contends.
“You walk into Highland Elementary and the school is almost all filled with children from Guatemala and the families are struggling to get something to eat. Two or three schools in Riviera Beach, there’s a crisis in those front offices every day, probably every hour. Someone says, ‘We’ve got an eviction notice. We need money to pay the power bill.’
“We see a decrease in investment in things such as mental health. Young men and women rely more and more on the school. I wanted to make sure I understand what went wrong. These (young people) are outliers, of course. Not everyone who drops out ends up in jail. But it’s costing us and it’s costing them a future.
“We need to say, ‘If you’re in trouble we can’t help you if we don’t know,’” Avossa said.
He believes the videos can inspire those conversations on and off campus. It’s a tool he’s used before, in Atlanta. But he said he expects to use them more broadly in Palm Beach County, where he gauges the interest in schools to be higher than other places he worked.
“All kids will have crises. How we respond, how the community responds says a lot about our values.”
The inmates’ stories didn’t end with dropping out or even being convicted. While we never learn their last names, we do learn that Karla and Tammy and a young man named Luke are among the approximately 80 students enrolled in courses to complete their high school education. The other three recently earned their GEDs.
They had parting advice as well.
Tammy: “Search out your talents because that’s a lot of fun. If a kid doesn’t know their talents, of course they’re going to look to the easier way of getting money.”
Luke: “Don’t give up, just keep pushing for it because it’s only so bad once in a while. Make sure you at least apply yourself.”
Bryan: “Finishing school and trying to go to college is better than getting stuck up in the street, because there’s no end to it. It doesn’t lead anywhere.”