In San Francisco, City Schools Are Focusing on Students With Incarcerated Parents
Teachers often ask kids in school what their parents do or to draw a picture of their family. It’s a curriculum that seems harmless enough, but for students with incarcerated parents, activities like these can cause a great deal of pain, without instructors even knowing it.
Matt Haney, president of the San Francisco Unified School District, recalled how one student was asked to write a story about his family and made it up instead of writing about his imprisoned father.
“Even with parent-teacher conferences, teachers will ask, ‘Where’s your parent?’ or ‘How come they’re not here?’ ” Haney told TakePart. “As a school district, we’re not really talking about it or how teachers need to handle those situations.”
This year, Haney says, the school board conducted its first training session for counselors and social workers working with students with incarcerated parents. Youths and older adults who had family members in correctional facilities led the training, talking about experiences they had in school and which ones increased feelings of anxiety or stigma—one example being when they were asked what their parents did for a living. The training was so well received by participants that the school board wanted to expand it, and with it came a new plan of action to help better the lives of those kids currently in school who had imprisoned parents.
Under the recently introduced plan, proposed by Haney and Shamann Walton, commissioner of the San Francisco Board of Education, the school board would create a series of programs, curricula, and training sessions focused on students with parents in prison.
On Tuesday, the two officials proposed a resolution aimed at expanding San Francisco school districts’ efforts to support youths with incarcerated parents, especially in schools with high concentrations of these students.
Details of how city schools would go about connecting imprisoned parents with students and teachers are still being figured out, but Haney says one goal is to have a staffing liaison with One Family, a program that provides family services to incarcerated parents—both those with child custody and those without—at San Francisco County Jail.
"There are a number of parents with students in our schools who are a part of that program,” said Haney. “We’ve worked with them, and if they want access to report cards, to participate in parent-teacher conferences, we’re helping them do that.”
According to Haney, a citywide estimate found that this past year more than 17,000 children had parents who were incarcerated, though that’s representative of all children—not just students—in San Francisco.
Nationwide, nearly half of all children—between 33 million and 36.5 million—have at least one parent with a criminal record, according to a recent Center for American Progress report, and more than half of the 2.3 million people imprisoned in the nation’s state and federal prisons have children under 18.
Children with imprisoned parents experience a number of economic and emotional setbacks that can contribute negatively to their performance in school.
A recent study found that more than 60 percent of families affected by incarceration struggled to meet basic financial needs: Families of the imprisoned person often have to pay the costs of incarceration, and expensive phone calls and prison visits have sent as many as one in three families into debt. These costs can have a damaging and sometimes long-term effect on students—less money means the family might have to move to a cheaper apartment in a poorer area or cut back on spending for recreation or new school clothes.
There is an emotional toll too: Students with incarcerated parents often experience a great sense of loss as a result of separation. The sudden loss of a parent can lead to feelings of loneliness or anxiety and other mental health concerns, which can result in children acting out in school or secluding themselves, according to a report prepared for The Annie E. Casey Foundation.
In San Francisco, the Academy of Arts and Sciences' ROOTs program is a theater group that helps students cope with having a family member who’s incarcerated. It’s one of the programs that the school board is looking to as a model for those it wishes to create.
“We want to work with the city and develop programs that are specifically for these students,” said Haney. “The curriculum will hopefully start next year, but we’re still looking at developing additional services and doing more intense training in schools.”