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An ounce of education is worth a pound of prevention

Opportunities for at-risk teenagers to avoid gang life

I have found that when a person, event, or theme appears on my radar more than once or twice, it’s time to sit up and take notice.

Every August, in Austin, Texas, I host a conference on gangs. It’s one of many in a wide variety of correctional leadership and management training programs offered by the Correctional Management Institute of Texas (CMIT) at Sam Houston State University (SHSU). For the past three years, one of our most popular speakers has been Ossco Bolton, a 37-year-old former gang member from Kansas City.

After a number of his family members were killed in gang-related shootings, Ossco decided enough was enough. Not only did he get out of the gang, he formed P.O.S.S.E. – Peers Organized to Support Student Excellence – and has been involved in some of the most important anti-gang summits in the country. These days he spends his time crisscrossing the country speaking at conferences and developing infrastructure in schools to help keep kids out of gangs.

One of the first things P.O.S.S.E. does is break down the barriers between youth and the community by creating networking opportunities. Former gang members and at-risk students meet with local police officers. The unlikely partnership stimulates discussion about each other’s realities and sparks flashes of recognition of two groups of people who share problems, dreams, and aspirations. Each group is amazed to find themselves looking on the other as human beings. P.O.S.S.E. goes on to provide leadership training and education to the kids.

The second thing that appeared on my radar recently is the Cristo Rey network of high schools. I was introduced to the network after my brother became principal of their school in the Washington, D.C., area. Cristo Rey is dedicated to providing quality education to students who dream of going to college but have very limited financial resources. Many of the students come from the kinds of vulnerable neighborhoods where Ossco Bolton grew up, some with significant gang influence.

Among the requirements for entrance to one of the schools, each incoming first-year student must pass a three-week “business boot camp” of sorts, which includes observing proper attire, hygiene, basic office processes, telephone and dining etiquette, and other indispensable skills. Acceptance into the high school is contingent on passing the boot camp since all students must work one day a week in corporate offices and government agencies throughout their high school years. In return, some 65-75% of their tuition is provided for by the employers. This makes high school education affordable for those who otherwise couldn’t have gone, and opens the gates to continue on to college and to lead lives as productive, contributing citizens.

While the school in Washington, D.C. will be graduating its first class only in 2011, more than 85% of the graduates from the 14-year-old flagship Cristo Rey in Chicago have graduated or are currently in college. It may come as little surprise that with such a track record, Cristo Rey has attracted the attention of some pretty serious people. In 2004, the television program 60 Minutes profiled Cristo Rey in Chicago, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has donated a total of nearly $16 million to create additional Cristo Rey schools around the country.

In this day and age of rampant gang activity, a struggling education system, and runaway costs of incarceration, there should be a national call – much like President Kennedy’s challenge to land on the moon – to implement curricula across the country like those at Cristo Rey and P.O.S.S.E. Bill and Melinda Gates and others seem to recognize this. It’s well past time to act on it in a meaningful way.

Dr. Joe Serio is a popular and sought-after criminal justice speaker and trainer. He is currently delivering a series of classes on time management, emotional intelligence, leadership, customer service, and other topics at the Harris County (Houston) Sheriff’s Office Training Academy. Dr. Serio is a featured speaker at SHIELD, Sheriff Institute for Ethical Leadership Development, at the Travis County (Austin) Sheriff’s Office Training Academy. He also speaks at adult and juvenile probation departments as well as police departments.
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