As graduate students, Kristen Horton ’19 and Celia Castro ’19 have become used to the routine of taking courses at the University of Redlands’ scenic main campus. But recently, one of their U of R courses at a quite different location has required layers of protocol. First, they must make their presence known by speaking into an intercom, then they pass through a metal detector, and finally, they are buzzed through a series of doors until they reach their classroom at the San Bernardino Juvenile Detention Center.
The course, Critical Perspectives on Education and Inequality in America, is taught by Professor Brian Charest and brings together 15 University of Redlands education students and 15 incarcerated youths for discussion about the purpose of public education in society and the intersections of race, class, gender, and discipline in schools. The class is part of a national network called the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, an organization that encourages college students and incarcerated people to explore issues of crime and justice together, inside prison walls.
Horton, who is working towards a master’s degree in learning and teaching, and Castro, a doctoral student, quickly signed on to take the course. Both of them have experience working with underserved youth in the Inland Empire. Horton has a background helping foster children and working with Riverside Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), an organization that seeks to support abused or neglected children. As a high school art, drama, and English teacher in Fontana, California, Castro says that a number of her students have already been through the juvenile justice system.
“So many of us in the class, both the inside [incarcerated] and outside [non-incarcerated] students, have had negative experiences in school,” says Castro. “I’m one of the older students, and it has been interesting to hear how, generationally, certain aspects of school haven’t changed at all. It led me to ask: Are we doing right by these kids?”
Inside the classroom, Charest has the students rearrange the desks—which are initially formatted in rows—into a circle where every outside student sits next to an inside student, naturally facilitating discussion. Charest often uses certain exercises to break the ice between students, some of which he learned during an Inside-Out Prison Exchange Institute that he previously attended at a state prison in Michigan. From philosophical debates to conversations about educational policy, both women say that Charest’s methods of teaching have leveled the playing field among the students and allowed for heavy interaction and engagement.
Horton says she has gleaned insight from these discussions, specifically about practices of punishment in education. “Many people in society think that punishing students who don’t traditionally fit in a school environment is justice,” she says. “But we have to think about different ways to address punishment. Instead of taking kids out of school, who are then more easily criminalized, we need to look at the underlying problems that a student is facing and try to address them as an educational community.”
Similarly, Castro notes that educators have a specific responsibility to students in influencing their adult lives. Throughout her studies, she often asks herself, “What do we want students to get out of a K-12 experience?”
“Educators are tasked with teaching students about the importance of civic responsibility,” she says. “If students aren’t treated in school like the good people we want them to grow up to be, those concepts of integrity and responsibility are more difficult to grasp and are less likely to remain when they become adults.”
Both women note that the experience from the class will travel with them as educators in the future. During the course, Castro read various studies about how teachers’ voices can trigger students’ past traumas. She has begun to work on the way that she uses her voice in her own classroom and is more mindful of how students react to her. She says that she also plans on using some of Charest’s ice-breaking exercises with her own students at the beginning of the new school year.
Horton, who will begin her student teaching next year, says that the course has changed her thoughts on the purpose of public education. “All students should have access to a high-quality education,” she says. “If anything, this class has taught me to be wary of suspending or expelling a child from school, as so many vulnerabilities come with being pushed out of the education system.”
Learn more about the Master of Arts in Learning and Teaching (MALT) and the Doctorate in Leadership for Educational Justice (Ed.D) programs at the University of Redlands School of Education.