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.
Either way, it’s pretty clear that meeting children’s basic physical needs and getting a head start in developing cognitive abilities are crucial for school success. Mentioned less often, though arguably equally if not more important, are a child’s social and emotional skills. Truly, how many of us adults can do our work well when distressed over, say, a family crisis?
For any number of reasons, many children who attend Chicago’s public schools live very stressed lives. Joblessness, the lack of affordable housing and high-crime neighborhoods all take a toll. For some, these afflictions are aggravated by having a parent in prison.
“Andrea,” for example, is subject to crying jags and, at only 10 years old, worries whether her mother will be able to pull it together and stay away from drugs when she is released from prison. “Todd” gets into fights at school and knows his father only as the man behind bars that he and his grandmother visit once a week. “Delila” has a newborn baby and is looking for a way back into high school to get her life on track. “Maxine” is repeating 3rd grade.
Still worse, statistics show that about half of the male children whose parents are in jail or prison will someday follow in their footsteps.
While the situation for these children is extremely difficult, it is not without hope. A recent study co-authored by University of Chicago economist James Heckman reports that children have until they are young adults in their 20s to learn and develop the kinds of social and emotional skills that will improve their prospects. Boys, especially, can benefit, as these traits can mitigate the odds that they’ll wind up in prison by the time they’re 30.
For schools, churches and other organizations that care about children, this constitutes a marching order to find ways to step in—early—and fill in the gaps. Bits and pieces of help for prisoners’ children are available around the city: A couple of South Side social service agencies have mentoring programs; a dozen or so schools offer grief and loss support groups to their students.
But there need to be more such programs that offer the kind of one-on-one nurturing relationship that, ideally, parenthood brings. Mentors can be the cheerleaders, coaches, surrogate parents, positive role models and personal advocates that these children are missing.
“Seth” is doing just OK in school, but his mentor, William Glover, says he is smart and can do much better. Sounds like a father to me.