Arvaughn Williams was a freshman at City Arts and Technology High School in the Excelsior when his father died in 2012 after spending years in and out of jail.
“The time that I was supposed to have with him, I felt like that was taken from me,” said Williams, who was told in school that he would have a jail cell waiting for him just like his father.
Now, at 17 years old, Williams is a youth mentor who ensures other students have the guidance he lacked — but needed — in school.
Thousands of other San Francisco youths like Williams, whose parents are incarcerated, are set to receive more support at school in the coming months as school board members on Tuesday decided to roll out new curriculum and training focused on the vulnerable students.
With the passing of the resolution, the San Francisco Unified School District will perform a “top-to-bottom assessment” of its curriculum to find out how incarceration is addressed in coursework, said Board of Education President Matt Haney, who introduced the resolution in January alongside Vice President Shamann Walton.
“This is a very large group of students, much larger than most people would expect,” Haney said of students in the school district with parents in jails or prisons.
While there has never been a formal count of students with incarcerated parents in San Francisco, an estimated 17,993 children lived in The City while their parents were locked up in state prisons or County Jail in 2010, according to the most recent data available from the Department of Children, Youth and Their Families.
“We want our district to be intentional about how we support these students,” Haney said. “In some cases that could be individual support, or in other cases that could mean broader integration into the curriculum.”
For Zoe Willmott, a director at Project WHAT!, a community program that helped write the resolution, changes to curriculum could include showing videos of what different families look like or assigning books with characters who are children with incarcerated parents.
One example of such materials is Sesame Street’s “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration,” a program with videos and workbooks targeted at children with locked up parents.
“There’s a lot of stuff out there,” said Haney. “The resolution mentions the Sesame Street curriculum, but there’s also a wide variety of books, materials, support services that can be made available to educators and students.”
Cecilia Galeano, 20, helped draft the resolution with Project WHAT!
“My parent was incarcerated when I was 14 years old,” Galeano said. “I actually had to testify against him, and that was very traumatizing.”
Galeano said none of her teachers or staff at Balboa High School reached out to her, even though her grades were in freefall.
The resolution also calls for school counselors, social workers and other staff to receive further training on the particular needs of students with incarcerated parents. Under a provision in the resolution, the training is likely to involve youth mentors from the Project WHAT! who can speak to their experiences.
The resolution is estimated to have “a very minimal budget impact” of about $105,000, according to Commissioner Rachel Norton.
Alongside curriculum and training changes, the district plans to provide teachers and other school staff with materials on children with incarcerated parents.
Under the proposed resolution, the school district would assign a case manager to work as a liaison between parents at County Jail and their children in the SFUSD.