What happens to students when they get pushed out of the education system? This is a question that University of Redlands School of Education Professor Brian Charest has been trying to answer. As part of this process, he has developed a new course called Critical Perspectives on Education and Inequality in America, which will begin in September.
This unique course will meet off campus—at a juvenile detention center in San Bernardino. 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.
For one semester, 15 School of Education students will join 15 incarcerated youths for discussions about the purpose of public education in society and the intersections of race, class, gender, and discipline in schools.
“One of the goals of the course is to make higher education available to all people,” Charest says. “Inside students (incarcerated youth) will receive college credit at the University of Redlands for taking the course.
Charest’s ideas for the course stemmed from his past experiences. A former high school English teacher at a South Side Chicago public school, Charest got involved in community-based work as a way to connect with his students and the community. After volunteering for a voter registration drive with his class, he became an advocate of young people’s involvement in civic life so their voices could be heard on the educational, political, and economic issues that touch them every day.
He later worked as an educator in Washington state. “In Seattle, I worked with the Seattle Teacher’s Residency Program, and we went to the state prison to work with the Black Prisoners’ Caucus,” he says. “Having conversations about education with men, most of whom were going to be incarcerated for the rest of their lives, was a transformative experience.”
After sharing his experiences during a class, a student approached Charest and told him about the U of R Read, Empower, Attain, Create, Hope (REACH) program—a partnership between the San Bernardino Probation Department, San Bernardino County Schools, and the University of Redlands’ Race and Ethnic Studies and Community Service Learning programs. U of R students involved in the program receive course credit, intern, or volunteer to tutor incarcerated youth. After reaching out to Jennifer Tilton, professor of Race and Ethnic studies and director of the program, Charest started drafting a syllabus.
The course material focuses on the intersection of education and inequality with a focus on justice. Students will work together to design a school and put together a list of recommendations for reforming schools to meet the needs of diverse learners. Paraphrasing political activist Angela Davis, Charest says, “Prisons have become such a fact of American life that it’s hard to imagine our country without them. I hope this course encourages students to analyze why that is.”
By the conclusion of the course, Charest hopes School of Education students will have had a transformative experience from being in dialogue with incarcerated people, as he did. Aiming to humanize prisoners and confront the realities of mass incarceration through the lens of education will, Charest says, “help students see the connections between schools and communities and create an opportunity for them to cross a really profound social boundary.”
Visit the School of Education website for more information on its programs. To read about the school's recent Summer Institute on Leadership for Educational Justice event, see the Bulldog Blog's "Summer Institute Highlights Research on Underserved Students."