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The Learning Curve: The Power of High Expectations

Tracy Thompson, who runs education programs for incarcerated youth at the San Diego County Office of Education, says his background — from being in a gang to a stint in the NFL — helps him make a unique pitch to the kids he works with: “I want kids to see in me that you can be educated, still be cool and you can still be real.”

Image courtesy of NBC San Diego

When I got a tip a couple months back that juvenile halls in San Diego are insanely empty, I had a hard time verifying it at first. No one knew what I was talking about. “Juvenile halls empty?” they asked. “Haven’t heard about it.”

Well, it turns out it’s true. In the small world of juvenile justice expertise, it’s common knowledge that San Diego’s juvenile prison population – and the rest of the state’s – has dramatically shrunk in the past 10 years to the point that vast amounts of prison space sits unused. And the first person to turn me on to that fact was Tracy Thompson, who runs education programs for incarcerated youth at the San Diego County Office of Education.

He showed me this data for the number of kids enrolled in juvenile facility schools and community schools (which serve young people on probation, as well as others) and it is truly astounding:

Year Juvenile Facility Community School Total
2012 5300 4945 10245
2013 5135 5881 11016
2014 3210 3373 6583
2015 2954 2585 5539
2016 2448 1967 4415
2017 1887 1480 3367
2018 1617 1427 3044

If you want to know more about what made that drop possible, check out my story. But here, I wanted to deliver the highlights from my conversation with Thompson, who happens to be a very interesting local himself. Thompson grew up in southeastern San Diego, was part of a gang and ultimately went on to play briefly in the NFL.

Can I get you to tell me about your gang experience?

Tracy Thompson

You know, I like to leave that in the past. Really I never wanted to be a part of a gang. But I had friends who were. And of all places I was at the Del Mar Fair, where one of my good friends was getting jumped by a rival gang. I intervened to help my friend out. And after that day, the rival saw me as a gang member. So as I was getting challenged, I found that I needed some security because I didn’t sign up. But because I was there at that time to the rivals I might as well have signed up and said, “I’m a gang member.” And so I unknowingly signed up by preventing my friends from getting the crap beat out of them.

So you ended up needing the gang?

Well, they also appreciated me providing the support.

I’m sure they did. A future NFL player, you probably weren’t slowing them down.

They were like, “You’ve got some skills here.’ But seriously you know I’m working in the same neighborhood now [southeastern San Diego.] I’m trying to give back to the neighborhood I stole from. I coach football, basketball and track and I’ve been doing that for 20-plus years.

That experience must help you relate to the kids you serve, right?

I can definitely relate. I relate to the risk factors. Oftentimes we get stuck on labeling children. Let me give you an example. My mother had me at 15. We became homeless because we were a strong Catholic family and she got kicked out of the house. I ended up being born in Compton and went back and forth to southeast San Diego and Compton. Of course, Compton still today, it’s known for tough neighborhoods, rap and all that kind of stuff. When kids in San Diego heard I was from Compton, they thought for sure I must want to be part of a gang, even though I didn’t. So there are a lot of students who are suffering through the same experiences I did, made same poor choices and have limited guidance. And there are legitimate gang members saying to them, “Let me love you.” Let me pseudo-love you and bring you in and seduce you into this lifestyle. I’m saying we don’t have to choose that route. We can create and warm, nurturing, high-expectations environments in school and afterschool programs for these kids.

So who do you feel like you’re trying to serve more? The kids who are being pulled into the gang lifestyle like you, or maybe the kids who are diving right into it?

I’d say both because I don’t see people choosing to live that lifestyle. I see people that ended up navigating their way to that lifestyle, but there’s not many people who say, “Hey, let me sign up.” No one is born and says, “I want to be a gang member.” I do know of kids who have a lot of circumstances that may increase their chances of becoming one. So I look at those things as putting them at risk. I feel our task is to create an opportunity to lower the risk and increase the protective factors. And I think education is one of the strongest tools to prevent someone from being involved.

Before working in the central office, Thompson spent 18 years working as a principal at juvenile facilities and community schools. I asked him if the best educators in that world tend to come from a background like his own.

Not necessarily. I’ve got great teachers who are blond-haired and blue-eyed ladies. It’s about knowing the child and the community you serve. If I only talk about how high the waves are and the kid has never been to the beach – that’s not a good example of how we engage them with this math problem. I will say this. Growing up in my neighborhood, it wasn’t cool being a schoolboy. The folks who were educated, it came off like they forgot where they came from. And they weren’t cool. I wanted to be both. Now I have a responsibility in making sure I go back into the communities where I used to live and wear my suit and tie. I want kids to see in me that you can be educated, still be cool and you can still be real. I want to be a role model with high expectations of kids. There are a lot of folks who feel sorry for these kids. They don’t need people to feel sorry for them; they need people to have clear expectations. I don’t care really if you’re a gang member or not. I want high expectations with a caring, supportive environment and rewarding little tiny steps will get you a long way.

Thompson told me his mission is to make sure that every child sees a place for themselves in the education system. He described schools that had pervasive cultures of low expectations in the past, and I asked him to give me an example.

I just remember teachers talking in the parking lots. And they would say something like, “Oh, we have Will here enrolled in our program now. Do you remember Will’s brother? Oh man, that family [is rough.]” And they wouldn’t even give you a chance. And so I would hear that and see that all the time. So instead, we started trying to have courageous conversation in my staff. Like, “If Will was your child, would you want someone talking about your child that way? What opportunities would you want your child to have?” I had some experiences that I shared with teachers. I had some very hurtful words shared to me by educators and by law enforcement when I was a kid that weren’t necessarily fair. These are things that our students had experienced and that a lot of our educators could not relate to. Most of them could not relate to that experience. I feel that is my duty to help them learn how to engage a student who may have had that experience. Now you have terms like trauma-informed care and restorative justice. And these are the practices that we’re trying to use throughout our system.

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