Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Announcement #1: Advocates for Children's Services

I will be announcing the nonprofits that BIKE NC will support one by one over the next several days, to give each of these wonderful organizations their due moment in the spotlight.

Here is number one. It is a pleasure to be able to support Advocates for Children's Services (ACS) in even a small way. I picked this organization because they use a simple, powerful tool, free legal representation, to tackle one of the hardest truths about our country today: kids who drop out of school are far more likely to end up in prison. The organization also provides resources on issues from foster care to special education. Let me allow ACS to tell you about their work in their own words:

Advocates for Children’s Services (ACS) is a statewide project of LANC.  Since its founding in 2001, ACS’ mission has been to advocate for the idea that at-risk children are rights-bearing citizens who are entitled to safe, permanent homes and should receive the medical and educational services promised by law.  Since 2008, ACS’ primary objective has been to end the school-to-prison pipeline in North Carolina.  Toward that end, ACS primarily engages in two types of activities:

    ▪    High-quality, free legal advice and representation for children from low-income families who are facing school push out as a result of suspension, expulsion, academic failure, unmet special education needs, enrollment problems, or discrimination; and
    ▪    Community education in the form of presentations, trainings, media outreach, social media, and publications.

The School-to-Prison Pipeline in North Carolina

ACS focuses on the school-to-prison pipeline because it has reached a state of crisis in North Carolina, the community’s demand for representation and reform is large, and it encompasses many education justice issues.  Academic failure, suspensions and expulsions, over-policing, school-based court referrals, a lack of adequate due process, and inadequate alternatives combine to push tens of thousands of North Carolina students out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems each year.  While these problems are certainly not the only contributing factors—others include systemic racism, the effects of poverty, underfunding, high-stakes testing, lack of positive parental involvement, and unaddressed mental health problems—they are the ones that ACS attorneys, as student advocates, can address most directly and effectively.

What I can add to this is that ACS has a small, overburdened staff of incredibly talented and dedicated attorneys accomplishing outsize feats with the resources they have available. Money raised by BIKE NC will allow ACS to expand its advocacy efforts.

The organization caught my attention because, while early childhood education and other initiatives focused on a child's formative years are crucial, it is somewhat easier to understand, and sympathize with, the cause of getting things right from the start for kids with the world ahead of them and the exponential dividends that could yield for the future. BIKE NC will be supporting early childhood education. What Advocates for Children's Services is doing is perhaps more difficult to understand. Many of the students they represent are already in high school, already in trouble, already hardened and unreachable, draining resources from a school system with scarce resources (so the argument goes). It is too late to reach them, sad that the system has failed them, but inevitable. Put your time and money somewhere else, right?

But that surrender to inevitability is an injustice, a shrug that allows a failure of the education system to become part of the system. ACS understands that. They're giving legal representation to individual students who want to stay in school, making a difference in their lives, and using that representation as a tool for broader advocacy. And for many students, the difference between struggling through school, managing to graduate, or not, and dropping out, is finite. A few steps one direction or the other. The consequences of which way they go are huge.

There are kids who want to be in school, get into trouble - one fight, one bad decision - and face a long-term suspension or expulsion that makes getting back on track and catching up on missed learning an insurmountable obstacle. And too often, these are students living in poverty or difficult home situations who don't have someone to advocate for them. Advocates for Children's Services provides the advocacy to make sure that all the questions have been asked, perhaps appealing to find out if there's a reason to lessen the harshness of a disciplinary action, or finding out whether alternative education can be provided, whether the student is getting make up assignments while suspended. These are the kinds of questions involved parents ask. If there's no parent there, because of family strife or an unforgiving work schedule or just because they don't know they have a right to ask, who will ask?

ACS is doing that difficult work. They're also raising awareness of the basic rights that students do have and can use to advocate for themselves. They ensure special education students are getting their needs met. We can all agree the education system is overburdened. It is because the system is overburdened that students with special needs or in difficult circumstances need a voice speaking up for them. Otherwise, it's too easy to surrender to the inevitability, to leave them behind.

I'm sharing with you just a highly untechnical glimpse of the school to prison pipeline. To learn more, to really understand it, read ACS' newsletters and issue briefs, which have a specific focus on North Carolina.

And please click the "Donate" button to support the brave and important work of Advocates for Children's Services.

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