Fellowship Insights: “Preschool-to-Leadership Pipeline”


February 2024

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Education Insights Center (EdInsights) or the California Education Policy Fellowship Program (EPFP).

“I don’t believe any good person of color has been killed by police.”

James “Stew” Stewart, former mayor of Temecula, CA 

“Do you want to fly in an airplane where they prioritized Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) hiring over your safety? That is actually happening.” 

Elon Musk, CEO SpaceX and Tesla

“All our social policies are based on the fact that African intelligence is the same as ours, whereas all the testing says not really.” [He added that he hoped everyone was equal] — “but people who have to deal with Black employees find this not true.” 

James Watson, Physiology Nobel Prize Winner 1962

“Others repeated age-old stereotypes of Black people as lazy, ignorant, and ‘on the take.’ These Ferguson officials were merely reenacting the quintessentially American ritual of humiliating and dehumanizing Black bodies while at the same time exploiting them for economic gain.” 

Marc Lamont Hill

Khieem Jackson, 2023-24 CA EPFP Fellow

The heights of achievement possible for students vastly surpasses the existing commitment and capability of our school system. 

Now is the time to imagine and create the educational environment and community that actually nurtures and unleashes every child’s full potential and success.

Policymakers often discover that the outcomes of legislative policies can yield unintended consequences. For people of color, the preschool-to-prison pipeline is one consequence that has led to decades of oppression and injustice. Radical injustice requires radical solutions. We need different solutions – now!  Specifically, there is a need for a framework that isn’t built on old paradigms, but radically changes the system itself. It must set and maintain a truly supportive learning environment AND intentionally “drive” the outcome desired, not by simply trying to mitigate the undesired outcomes of failed policies. As a solution to advancing critical thinking skills and leadership fundamentals, increasing student readiness, and enhancing and building upon efforts to mitigate the preschool-to-prison pipeline, I propose advancing equitable learning systems via “the Preschool-to-Leadership Pipeline.”

In a time of great social progression, bias and racism remain central factors in many areas of American Society, as demonstrated in the quotes above. If society believes that the inclusion of a Black person means a decline in quality, that thought risks finding a home deep in the minds of our Black babies. If our civic leaders truly believe that there has never been a person of color unjustly killed by police, that speaks deeply to the lack of human value they believe a Black person possesses. The combination of these negative narratives and the disproportionate impact of suspensions and expulsions of children of color in part leads to the preschool-to-prison pipeline. 

The preschool-to-prison pipeline can be traced back to the early 1970s when the president declared a “war on drugs.” The data is clear that when students are segregated in our educational system, they are then tracked into the prison industry, the permanent underclass, and into a lasting reliance on social services. The achievement gap, low expectations by educators, chronic absenteeism, disproportionate suspension, and expulsion rates, to name the most egregious precursors in our education system to the preschool-to-prison pipeline. Thousands of children and students are suspended and expelled each year, placing them on a path that leads them closer to prison than gaining a high school diploma, and unfortunately, it begins when they are very young.  Oftentimes, these experiences diminishes their hope for a better future or extinguishes their warrior or entrepreneurial spirit. An impact that can destroy the hope for a financially secure future.  

In recent years, California has invested more than $100 billion a year in education. This is more than the entire budget of all but a few states.  As a “third house member,” I have witnessed California striving to find policy solutions to barriers that prevent children from completing their primary, secondary, and post-secondary education. Education advances financial stability, economic mobility, economic growth, and innovation. The individual, communities, and our state benefit from investments in equitable policies, human capital, and safe communities. This is particularly important for California, the fifth-largest economy in the world.

I commend the continued efforts of California’s state leaders’ to mitigate and rollback the preschool-to-prison pipeline. That said, we need to buttress these efforts with leadership and ready-now skills that: 

  • forge agency within students;
  • teach them foundational critical thinking skills; and 
  • instill the foundations of leadership fundamentals.

Instead of “defensively” fighting to keep babies, preschoolers, and TK-12 students of color from being expelled, there needs to be a system that unapologetically and “offensively” equips, supports, and nurtures these same children, a system that makes children believe they are needed in our society versus tolerated or “nobodied.” This kind of system could support students in knowing they know they are valued by society as members and innovators, and truly supported by a school and community fully committed to their success. We need a framework that promotes culturally responsive school site leaders who believe in people of color AND equips students with critical thinking skills, planning, problem-solving, and decision-making skills. Each student should graduate high school with a “full quiver” or life capabilities toolbox full of appropriate tactics and techniques to optimize their ability to navigate a dynamic world. As someone who has traveled around the globe more than two dozen times, I firmly believe we must get radically honest about the need to help students cultivate leadership, self-confidence, and agency. Our students deserve it. We need an education system that instills in students a psyche of potential, high expectations, and accomplishment, where the default expectation is achievement and leadership, NOT prison. One that offensively focuses on changing the external narrative and buttressing students’’ internal narratives  to support them in achieving their own potential and passion. 

Imagine what a student could achieve if they felt fully supported by a school AND community truly committed to their success, and if they were equipped with the competencies needed to thrive. Imagine a system that intentionally teaches students foundational skills so that they can go from “Good to Great” and from “Blue-to-Black”…