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Breaking Bars: Formerly Incarcerated Youth, Critical Consciousness and Schools as Conduits for Students’ Life Course Change


This qualitative study examined the social and academic needs of formerly incarcerated students upon reentry to public high schools with the goal of graduating. The sample consisted of a total of 17 participants across two public high schools in one large urban district in California. The research design consisted of semi-structured interviews with students, teachers, counselors, principals, probation officers, and delinquency court judges. The interview design was intended to gain insights into the participants’ perspectives on the needs of formerly incarcerated youth towards graduation. Findings are organized around three themes: oppression and control; dignity and agency; and, sense of belonging and turning point. Findings reveal that students experience psychosocial stressors upon reentry that are either diminished or strengthened based on adult actors’ responses to student behavior, students perceive adults use coercive control in their attempts to help them succeed, colorblind adults downplay their influence and attribute student success to connectedness with family and students’ willingness to work hard in school, critical adults have a strong sense of agency to support student beyond a technical level, students perceive graduation as a means to change life course although the motivator to graduate and change life course is sense of belonging and connectedness with adults at school, and critical adults perceive students’ relationships with school adults as a driver to graduate and change their life course.

Implications of the findings include a focus on social and emotional supports for student learning and targeted allocation of resources for professional staff training and teacher education programs on race conscious and culturally relevant pedagogy. Moreover, implications include a need for targeted staff training on critical consciousness to reduce stigmatization and further criminalization of delinquent youth upon return to school. Five recommendations for policy and practice are made as a result of this study’s findings: (a) direct and additional resources to schools with high numbers of students returning from jail, (b) critical consciousness training for adult actors, (c) school-based interdisciplinary teams to develop individual student plans, (d) development of inter-agency communication and monitoring of students, and (e) service centers should be developed to render multidisciplinary support to students.

Limitations of the study include generalizability given that data were collected from participants at only two school sites. In addition, the participants were purposefully selected based on success with formerly incarcerated youth and may not be a representative sample of the majority of large comprehensive high schools. The two judges and one probation officer who participated did not have direct knowledge of or contact with the student participants in this study.

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