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Ending the school to prison pipeline, one student at a time

Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen kisses his wife Jody after she repels a wall at a June fundraiser for Stanford Youth Solutions, a program aimed at helping at-risk and foster youth.
Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen kisses his wife Jody after she repels a wall at a June fundraiser for Stanford Youth Solutions, a program aimed at helping at-risk and foster youth. hamezcua@sacbee.com

Three out of every four inmates in California are people of color, most of whom first had contact with the criminal justice system as teenagers. The school-to-prison pipeline traps thousands of young people, primarily men of color, in unemployment, poverty and violence.

Improve Your Tomorrow was created in 2013 to break this pipeline by helping young men of color get in and through college.

On Aug. 24, I helped Josh Rudolph move into his dorm at Sacramento State. As we drove to the campus, I was filled with a mix of emotions – happiness and joy that he beat the odds and was headed to an excellent university, but also sadness and fear that he might leave college in debt and with no degree.

Opinion

To fully appreciate this moment, you have to understand Josh’s background and how he defied almost every statistic. He grew up in poverty in a single-parent home and lived in a neighborhood nicknamed “South Sac Iraq” due to the frequent gunshots and homicides.

His challenges did not stop there. As an 8-year-old, he was identified as a special needs student and put on an academic path that, without some sort of intervention, would have left him with very few options after high school, if he graduated at all.

Michael Lynch.jpg
Michael Lynch

Josh joined Improve Your Tomorrow his freshman year. As a 14-year-old, he exhibited determination not shown by his peers: It was a cold October morning and we had just ended Saturday study hall. As I pulled out of the parking lot, I saw him standing at the bus stop, in only shorts and a T-shirt, shivering and dancing to stay warm. He had no way to reach study hall on time other than to wake up early to take the bus. He showed up early, eager to help with set-up or breakfast, and embraced the program not only to study, but to be surrounded by like-minded brothers.

Over the next four years Josh and I became close. I picked him up every Saturday morning and made sure he got a ride home. He showed up to every program, including weekly study halls, workshops, student conferences, college trips, mentorship sessions and team-building trips. He took part in our summer Capitol Internship program. Other IYT students became his best friends, who helped him avoid and overcome the common obstacles young men face in underserved communities.

Move-in day at Sacramento State was special, because I had seen Josh’s journey. I saw the ups and downs, but most importantly I saw him never give up. Josh beat the odds, but too many like him are left behind in failing schools with little hope of success.

It is IYT’s vision to change this outcome and ensure that young men of color become over-represented in higher education, underrepresented in the criminal justice system, and develop into community leaders.

Michael Lynch is co-founder and CEO of Improve Your Tomorrow Inc. He can be contacted at michael@improveyourtomorrow.org.

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