Rodney Robinson laughs and smiles at the camera, standing in a classroom

All children—including those who are incarcerated—deserve a quality education, says 2019 National Teacher of the Year Rodney Robinson. A social studies teacher and 20 year veteran of Richmond Public Schools, Robinson has spent the past five years at Virginia’s Virgie Binford Education Center, a school inside the Richmond Juvenile Detention Center. His goal: to better understand and help dismantle the school-to prison pipeline. Robinson spoke with ASBJ’s Michelle Healy about supporting our most vulnerable students.

What have you learned about education at Virgie Binford?

I’d always felt that a poverty-to-prison pipeline is at work and that we criminalize being poor. That’s why kids end up in jail, and we were blaming the school system. But my first day at the detention center, I had an eye-opening experience when my first class walked in, and three of the students were kids I had just failed at my old high school. That really made me re-examine my grading policies, my attendance policies, my relationship building, everything that I felt would allow kids to stay in class. If our purpose is to educate students, we must ask, are there policies that facilitate failure in school?

Your advice for breaking the pipeline?

Implement more restorative practices when it comes to school discipline. That we put kids out of school is counter to our mission of education. If we put them out of school, number one, they’re falling behind in their schoolwork, and number two, they’re not learning from their behavior. Also, we need to eliminate police officers handling discipline in schools. They should be there to protect the school environment, not to do discipline. Let’s re-allocate resources to things that will solve and help our kids' problems, rather than just punishing and disciplining them.

What’s a message that your students want to send?

They want to say that they deserve the best. So often in life, they’ve not been given the best. My goal is to treat them in a way that says you deserve the best when it comes to school, housing, resources, opportunities. I want to teach them how to express their desires in a positive way, rather than committing crimes; teach them to address the legislature to say, “Hey, poverty is an issue in my community. Let’s create programs that will feed us, so we’re not resorting to illegal ways to making money.”

How do we increase the number of male teachers of color?

One, create better experiences for students of color in our schools. A lot of our students of color are traumatized by school. No one wants to return to the scene of their trauma as a teacher. Secondly, start investing in HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and other programs that produce male teachers of color. We need a targeted effort to get these future teachers in the schools and help with finances.

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