Allie DeSmet | St. Louis ‘11
A few weeks ago, I had a parent-teacher conference from prison. Well, to be clear, I didn’t go to the prison to meet in person. But I did have a phone conference with a student’s dad who is serving time in prison. I can say, without a doubt, it was the most impactful parent meeting I’ve ever had. I have a wonderful, bubbly, well-mannered 5 year old in my Kindergarten class this year. She runs into class each morning greeting me with a big hug and a smile, and is always ready to learn. She has made great growth so far this year, but she came in with a long road ahead. At the beginning of the year, she recognized only 2 letters, could count to 15, and knew only 2 numbers.
We have all heard about the increasing problem of incarceration in the United States. According to one study, The United States has the largest prison population in the entire world (Walmsley, 2009). Another study cites that approximately half of U.S. prisoners are parents of children less than 18 years old (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008). This number becomes even more staggering when we look at the impact of race on this equation. I teach in an almost entirely African-American school. “Estimates suggest that cumulatively, one in 25 White children and a staggering one in four Black children born in 1990 had experienced parental imprisonment by their 14th birthday” (Farrington, Murray & Sekol, 2012). That means statistically, in my class of 23 students, 5 or more of my students have parents in prison. Unfortunately, this estimate is close to accurate for my class this year. These children have sometimes been referred to as the “orphans of justice” due to parental incarceration (Shaw, 1992a). A few of these “orphans of justice” just happen to sit in my class each day.
During my two-years as a Teach for America corps member, I was reminded over and over again about the impact of parent involvement in my student’s education. When mom came in for Parent-Teacher conferences, she was on the phone beaming from ear to ear. She sat down and said, “You know her dad’s in jail. Well he wanted to be here. Is it okay for him to be on speaker phone?” My student who was there as well smiled proudly as she sat next to me. Short introductions were exchanged, and we jumped into discussing academic progress. It all seemed oddly normal, that is until the recorded message would pop up every few minutes reminding all of us that this was a phone call from prison that would be recorded.
At one point in the conversation, Dad said something I will never forget. We were discussing the importance of getting a quality education for his daughter and he said, “I believe in you. I believe in my daughter, and I want what’s best for her. I think that one reason I’m in jail now is because I never got a good education, and didn’t try hard in school. I’m just trying to make sure this doesn’t happen to my girls because I can’t believe I’m not there for them”. Mom choked back tears as I held her hand.
I used to be very judgmental of my student’s parents who were incarcerated. I made assumptions about their lack of involvement, their lack of commitment to their family, etc. Here is a dad who has every reason not to attend a Kindergarten Parent-Teacher Conference. Is this an ideal situation? A phone call from jail? Absolutely not. But my argument is that it’s a hell of a lot better to have a dad who is taking responsibility for his choices and trying to be supportive of his children and family than one who doesn’t try at all.
It all just gives us something to think about. The lives that our students and their families lead all bleed into the classroom in one way or another. That day, the impact of their lives in the classroom setting was a simple phone conference to discuss a child’s academic and social growth. But more than that, it has forever impacted my biases and presumptions about incarcerated parents and impacted the way I approach parental involvement in the classroom.
Farrington, J. Murray, J. Sekol, I. (2012). Children’s antisocial behavior, mental health, drug use, and educational performance after parental incarceration: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 138(2), Mar 2012, 175-210. Doi: 10.1037/a0026407
Glaze , L. E. Maruschak , L. M. (2008). Bureau of Justice statistics special report: Parents in prison and their minor children. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Walmsley , R. (2009). World prison population list (8th ed.). London, England: International Centre for Prison Studies, Kings College London.
Wildeman , C. (2009). Paternal incarceration, the prison boom, and the concentration of disadvantage. Demography, 46, 265-280. doi: 10.1353/dem.0.0052
Allie DeSmet is an alum native to St. Louis in her third year of teaching. A former Kindergarten-8Th grade Spanish Teacher, she now teaches Kindergarten in north St. Louis city.