In October, Oakland, California educator Hattie Tate stepped up to the podium, once again, in a funeral home chapel. And once again, as a young man lay in the casket before her, she called on mourners to take part in ending gun violence.
“How can we return from this place where our youth don’t feel safe unless they are carrying a loaded weapon?” she asked the assembled that day.
In lengthy interviews with The Imprint, Tate, 67, described her role in the East Bay, where one day she is consoling teens and parents in a community too often suffering from violence, and another day making plans for the weekly handful of kids released from juvenile hall back to their neighborhoods. In all her roles, she said, she is unwavering in her message and priorities: “Education, education, and education.”
Tate has been an educator in this urban Bay Area community for the past quarter century. And for a decade she has overseen schooling for detained youth, working for the Oakland Unified School District, the City of Oakland Department of Violence Prevention in partnership with the county probation department. She recently participated in a novel community-based research project involving incarcerated youth in her county. It showed that a simple letter of introduction from an incoming student to a teacher reduced the teen’s chance of re-arrest.
When Stanford University psychology professors Greg Walton, Jennifer Eberhardt and Jason Okonofua, now an assistant professor at University of California, Berkeley, approached Tate’s county and district about the project, the Oakland schools veteran had long sought to answer some of the very same questions.
“The whole time that I’ve been doing this work,” Tate said, “I’ve been thinking about how to stop kids from getting pushed out of schools by unwelcoming negative environments, by adults being biased and pre-judging students before they even get to class.”
The need to feel safe
Mirroring similar trends statewide, the population in the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center has steadily declined over years. But Black and brown youth sleep in most of the beds that are filled. On a recent weekday, there were roughly 52 youth ages 17 and younger at the 360-bed, medium-security lock-up perched on a hill in the East Bay city of San Leandro. And without support and guidance, these youth could face high rates of dropout and future arrests.
Tate’s Monday begins by checking the bookings and releases from the weekend. From the logs, she knows just how many students are leaving juvenile hall and set to return to campuses in the surrounding area — roughly five to seven students a week, or about 125 in total since the school year began.
Time and again, she has seen how academic success hinges on everything that happens around these students — centrally, how safe they feel.
The current level of support she described represents a dramatic change from the era when Tate began her career decades ago. These days, when teens arrive at juvenile hall, a team of social workers, psychologists and behavioral therapists are lined up to work with them. And services known as “wraparound” care will follow the young person out of juvenile hall and back into their homes.
All youth who live or go to school in Oakland and come through the Juvenile Justice Center meet or get enrollment assistance with Tate. They can be accused of crimes as serious as carjacking with a weapon or strong armed robbery. But typically, they too have been victimized. Some have also come from the child welfare system, others are experiencing homelessness or being sexually exploited.
When students are detained, they’re immediately dropped from their Oakland public school and enrolled in the county school at the juvenile hall where they can earn transferable credits. While they are locked up, there’s no getting out of school. But under those restrictions, something new often emerges, Tate observed: Students reveal they have the capacity to do the work.
“When they’re in custody, they’re in school, when they’re out of custody they’re not in school,” she said. “The sad thing was to see how often some students had never passed classes until they were in custody.”
But the desire to learn and stay focused in school can be shaky. If youth flounder once they’re released from detention, and parents can’t keep them in school, there are new factors to consider. Probation officers might push judges to send them to another institution, even farther from home.
Tate is responsible for ensuring all youth released from the lock-up get promptly enrolled in school, have a smooth transition and are connected to wraparound services that will help them succeed.
She aims to figure out what prevents youth from sticking with school, and if they’re attending, what prevents them from excelling. That involves collaborations across government agencies, schools and community groups.
And she works with parents as well. In the past, Tate said, it used to take a month or two for children to be re-enrolled in school upon release from juvenile hall. Now — with heightened attention to records and follow-up — they’re back within a matter of days.
“Tate addresses re-enrollment expertly,” said Crystal Barton, a transition unit supervisor at the juvenile hall. “If they’re not in school it’s because they must have run away or disappeared off the face of the Earth. Otherwise, she’s looking for them.”
Going back to school on the outside
A youth’s return to school from jail typically lands amid food insecurity, housing instability and fear of neighborhood violence. And teachers can be wary of receiving formerly incarcerated students back in the classroom.
Authors of the recent study of youth in Alameda County published last October in Psychological Science cited findings that teacher relations “may be compromised by negative stereotypes that label youths as offenders and boys of color as violent and out of control.” Students returning from detention, in turn, often have their guard up, giving rise to “mistrust and worries about belonging and thus a vigilance to signs of disrespect or mistreatment from adults.”
To ease the transition, the Alameda County youth who participated in the research project wrote letters explaining things like, “I’m a good kid,” “I get bored easily,” and I need “one-on-one time.” Those who wrote letters to their teachers — describing their hopes and dreams and asking for support — were less than half as likely as their peers to be re-arrested.
As Tate suspected, instead of being written off as disruptive children, the teachers who read the students’ letters saw them as vulnerable, and in need of support. They expressed greater love, respect and commitment to their education, suggesting that a shift in teachers’ perceptions of justice-involved youth is possible.
Tate is now pursuing the pilot project with 10 additional Oakland Unified School District students, and seeking adults to work with the hundreds more children who will need support on their transition back to school in their communities: assistant principals, academic guidance counselors, life coaches — or someone she has yet to encounter who is able to welcome the students back without judgment.
For now, she works with who’s out there in the schools where the youth are headed. Prior to a student’s release, Tate notifies the school and arranges for support and academic planning. But community groups also play a role.
Once released, the students have access to mentors and case management through a partnership with EBAYC, a multicultural organization that provides homework support, enrichment electives and college and career workshops. If a student has a co-defendant in a crime, the terms and conditions of their probation might include connecting with a violence interrupter or intervention specialist at the nonprofit Youth Alive!, based in Oakland. Tate refers youth at risk of commercial sexual exploitation to the Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting & Serving Sexually Exploited Youth, a group known as MISSSEY.
‘She wanted to know’
Tate received her bachelor’s degree in organizational management from Patten University in 1995, and later became a credentialed adult educator in business and career courses through a UC Berkeley extension program.
A transformative tragedy struck in her third year as a teacher at Castlemont High School: Her nephew was shot and killed by someone who had dropped out of the school. It was a painful reminder of the desperately high stakes of her work to keep kids engaged in their education. Her nephew’s murder served as inspiration to learn more about her craft, and she enrolled at Mills College, earning a master’s degree in educational leadership.
She also worked as a teacher, director of a small school within a school, and later principal of Dewey Academy, a continuation high school for students who are transient, behind on credits and struggling with homelessness, foster care, family abuse and neglect, and exposure to violence and crime. The school and the teenagers she encountered inspired Tate to center her career on youth in the justice system.
It was there she first met Caheri Gutierrez, who transferred to Dewey after being kicked out of a school in nearby Alameda.
Gutierrez said school wasn’t such a problem for her until a crisis upended her progress.
She found herself drifting as she sat in her sophomore biology class. While her teacher talked about things like cellular structure, her mind wandered. She kept replaying the moment she witnessed her older brother get shot in the head at a party.
“I put my hands on the bullet wound in his head to stop the warm blood from gushing out,” she recalled.
Her brother survived, but the experience ignited a trauma that wouldn’t subside. She started self-medicating with alcohol and marijuana, hoping to at least dull the pain.
But when she arrived at Dewey, Tate asked her for an entire run down of her life. “She wanted to know about my family life, why I was there, why my grades dropped, everything,” Gutierrez said.
Tate connected her with resources and encouraged her to enroll in after-school programs. She started to excel academically again.
Then, tragically, in her senior year, she was shot in the face. Her friend was giving her a ride to help her mother clean an office building when a car pulled alongside them and someone opened fire.
“When I woke up out of that coma at Highland Hospital, Ms. Tate was there,” Gutierrez said. As she began to recover, Tate and some of her teachers showed up with words of encouragement and homework packages. “I ended up graduating high school from the hospital.”
Gutierrez had a long physical and emotional journey to recovery. She now works for a community organization focused on violence prevention, and she and her former school principal have crossed paths many times.
Speaking of all her former students, Tate is resolute:
“We must create safety in our communities and schools in order to get the attention of a young person so they can learn,” she said. The students she works with often need various forms of support — everything from help paying for groceries or a cell phone bill to gift cards for clothing. Some will need bedside vigil. They will all need support.
“We can no longer work with a student and expect to send a kid back into a dysfunctional environment,” she said, “and expect them to be successful.” Tate calls on all educators to answer the call. “This is our watch and we must lead them to success.”