Social Belonging to Help Students Thrive after Juvenile Detention

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Katie Remington Cunningham (left), Hattie Tate (right).
Katie Remington Cunningham (left), Hattie Tate (right).

Every year, tens of thousands of children are incarcerated in juvenile detention facilities. Stanford’s Lifting the Bar Project aims to help young people succeed when they return to school. The team includes Stanford researchers and leaders from the Oakland Unified School District, San Francisco Unified Public School District, and the Sacramento County Office of Education. Together, they are piloting a new approach to build supportive relationships between students and educators to support students when they go back to school. It is one of six teams to receive start-up funding from Stanford Impact Labs for 2021-2023. 

Katie Remington Cunningham, research director for the Minnesota Justice Research Center, and Hattie Tate, administrator at Oakland Unite’s Juvenile Justice Center, describe their work together--and with a team of more than a dozen researchers and school district leaders--to use insights about social belonging to help returning students thrive.

What is the social problem you are working on?

KATIE REMINGTON CUNNINGHAM (Minnesota Justice Research Center): The term “school-to-prison pipeline” is prevalent in our lexicon yet vastly understudied. In particular, the experiences of young people trapped in the system are often misrepresented and misunderstood. The pipeline metaphor implies a single direction from school to prison. In reality, the process is a complex web of confinement, dehumanization, release, and recidivism.

Right now, we punish and confine young people who most need our support, and then when they are released from spaces of confinement back into schools, we expect transformation and learning to happen.  We have listened and learned from young people in this transition and paired our learning with research on the power of relationships between young people and non-parent adults. We hope that by understanding the biases at play in this context and orienting young people and educators towards positive relationships with one another, we can stop the cycle at a critical juncture.

HATTIE TATE (Oakland Unite): I focus on social belonging.  My goal is to change the "pushout" of justice-involved youth from schools.  Young people who have been involved in the justice system, whether from child welfare or delinquency, and who face an unsupportive, non-welcoming school environment are returning or turning to more delinquency and recidivism.  The impact is an increase in violence, youth offenses and sometimes death.  Solving this for one student at a time creates an opportunity for young people to increase their social emotional wellness and academic performance.  Linking social service systems and resources to this kind of student success could also motivate other family members to succeed.

What will the start-up lab funding and team approach help you do?

KATIE REMINGTON CUNNINGHAM (Minnesota Justice Research Center)We’ve explored the potential of this kind of intervention on a small scale and the results are promising and inspiring. With start-up lab funding and a team approach, we can think critically about how to engage in this process in a deeper way and incorporate it in schools and communities. This work needs to be replicated and understood in different contexts and this requires meaningful collaborations across systems. The research-practice partnership is vital for doing joint work at the boundaries, requiring researchers to embrace and consider messiness, variability, and humanity in our work and allowing practitioners space to think and connect action to theory and embrace the slower but deliberate pace of academic research. This is hard and not typical for university research because sometimes what you learn is that you need to keep learning.

HATTIE TATE (Oakland Unite): This team approach and start-up funding will help to sustain Oakland Unified School District’s organizational goal to create a community school environment where every student thrives.  What's different about this approach is it creates educational support starting at release, with positive caring adults in a warm handoff to a student-selected educator who is willing to motivate a student to succeed.  A new partnership approach within our Community Schools Student Services Units could link and integrate additional support from our multi-tiered systems, adding personalized assessment, interventions and support for both students and families.

What are you most excited about with this work?

KATIE REMINGTON CUNNINGHAM (Minnesota Justice Research Center):  We are most excited about the potential for impact. The lives of young people are at stake. While we need transformative changes in how we think about justice in this country, we don’t have time to waste and must act while shifting the narrative. This work provides a concrete and accessible way to foster a potentially life-changing relationship for young people involved in the justice system. We’re also excited about the meta effect of fostering relationships between practitioners in the legal system, educators, and researchers!

HATTIE TATE (Oakland Unite): I started this work as an educator whose daily work was helping students to survive. I am most excited to participate in the research and implementation of a social belonging intervention where when students really learn more, they learn to thrive.  As an educator,  I know from personal experience and the wisdom of others, there are benefits of building relationships and adding resources that result in resilience!

**The impact lab's leadership team also includes Greg Walton and Jennifer Eberhardt from Stanford University, Jason Okonofua from the University of California Berkeley, Alysse Castro from the San Francisco Unified School District, Matt Perry from the Sacramento County Office of Education, Chandra Muller from the University of Texas Austin, and Elizabeth Tipton from Northwestern University.

Read more about the team members and impact lab’s work