Charter School in LA Teaches US How to Treat Children with Incarcerated Parents

“My mom is in Africa on an archeological dig, she’s looking for dinosaur bones.” “Where is your mom now Celeste, have you seen any of the dinosaur bones?,” they would ask. Celeste, my daughter, was always quick with a response, “My mom just finished going on safari, they’re sending her to Tijuana to look for fossils now, I may visit her on the weekend.” I would write her weekly, and every other weekend she would visit me for thirty minutes. I talked to her through a phone from behind glass. She would be in her trenzas, and I would be in my orange jumpsuit. At the end of each visit, she would watch as I was cuffed and escorted back to my cell. With almost every visit, I would ask the deputy not to cuff me in front of my daughter, my failed attempt in sparing her additional heartache. She’d always slap the cuffs on anyway, which I referred to as my ‘Tiffany’s bracelets.’  Looking for fossils in the desert was more exciting and accepted than the reality of having your mom in prison. Celeste would share the adventures I encountered while on safari and during my time on the dig. Her imagination soared. An escape from the harsh reality of having both parents in jail.

Celeste was days into being a third grader when I went to her school and dropped off mini excavation kits for her class. I saw her in class and hugged her tight. At this point her dad had just been arrested earlier that same morning. Not knowing what would happen next, I hugged a little tighter just in case because I did not know when the next hug would be. Moments later, I was also arrested.

When asked where her parents were, Celeste told everyone that we were on an adventure looking for fossils. Only there was no dig, or safari, or dinosaur bones, instead we were in jail cells.  At the age of eight, she was aware, she had first-hand knowledge of the stigma of having parents in jail. Something not all too uncommon in South Central, where we lived. How she came up with her stories can only be attributed to her imagination, her love of books and adventure, her affinity of learning and perhaps the excavation kits I took to her class that morning.

My then mother-in-law (I am in the process of getting divorced) notified the school of our arrest. Celeste’s safety was of concern. As a result, the school changed its after school pick-up policies. Celeste also met weekly with a counselor and was given additional support and resources that she needed. The school’s response and support has made all the difference for Celeste and has contributed to her academic achievements.

Celeste never felt stigmatized or judged, and if she was at some point, she was not aware of it and didn’t feel any less because of it. My daughter’s experiences prove what is possible when a school understands the circumstances and experiences of students with incarcerated parents. School can work smarter and more compassionately to meet the child’s needs when a student has parents who are in jail.

While Celeste’s experience of having incarcerated parents not unique or all that uncommon, I don’t even want to imagine what would have happened had the school’s administrators and teachers reacted differently or if she was at a school that did not offer her the same level of compassion and support. Surely the implications would have been reflected in Celeste. Given all of trauma that Celeste was experiencing at the time, I felt  some sense of comfort knowing that her school environment was tolerant of her situation. She was being taken care of with compassionate teachers, administrators, and a therapist. She was not further traumatized. It was these “little things” that gave me some solace.

I read an article recently in the San Francisco Examiner  about the passing of a new resolution in the San Francisco School District that will reassess all of its curriculum to be more supportive of students like Celeste who have incarcerated parents. The resolution will lead to a review of how incarceration is addressed in coursework. In the resolution proposed by Commissioner Shamann Walton and the vice president of the city’s board of education, Matt Haney, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) would facilitate communication between students and their parents. A school administrator would also contribute to the San Francisco County Jail’s parental education program, which helps adults maintain close ties to their kids and prepares them for parenting upon their release.

According to the article I read, the resolution calls for school counselors, social workers and other staff to receive further training on the particular needs of students with incarcerated parents. Under a provision in the resolution, the training is likely to involve youth mentors who can speak to their experiences of being students with parents who were incarcerated.  Alongside curriculum and training changes, the district plans to provide teachers and other school staff with materials on children with incarcerated parents.

Under the proposed resolution, the school district would assign a case manager to work as a liaison between parents in County Jail and their children in the SFUSD.

When I came home from my two years in prison to a fifth grader, I had missed so much. I wasn’t there for book reports, homework, parent-conferences or open houses. We didn’t get to build a California Mission together. Through the experience of what our family has gone through, we have come to understand many realities and know how impactful the school’s role was on Celeste’s development. The stance that the San Francisco Unified School District is taking in supporting students like Celeste is quintessential. Children with incarcerated parents experience economic and emotional setbacks that can contribute negatively to their performance in school.

Celeste is currently a 9th grader, soccer player, photographer and ASB class rep. Celeste is not defined or limited by her parent’s mistakes nor by my absence from her life for two years. Consequently, I have kept her at the same school, Aspire Charter, where we have continued to receive support services. Those services have extended far beyond the classroom setting and have included family and co-parenting counseling. Celeste aspires to be veterinarian with her eyes set on UC Davis and Yale for college.

I am now here for my daughter and will continue on this journey with her as she navigates high school. She has a strong foundation from both her family and a school that cared enough about her extenuating circumstances to react and adjust to her needs related to the circumstances of having incarcerated parents.

We finally saw the dinosaur bones together, not on my archaeological dig in Tijuana, but in Los Angeles. At the Natural History Museum.

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Lily Gonzalez

Lily Gonzalez

Lily Gonzalez was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, the daughter of a single, immigrant father. Lily strives to make her father’s dream of a family of college graduates come true. She is a product of LAUSD Schools and a graduate of South Gate High School.

She is a recent cancer survivor and through some years of adversity has risen above all her recent challenges. Lily is a Homeboy Industries graduate and full-time student at California State University, Northridge. She has continued to live her life in South Los Angeles with her two children. She works to show her children that anything can be done with hard work, determination and perseverance even in the face of unimaginable challenges. Her daughter is in a Charter School and she is working to find the right Preschool program for her youngest child.

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