The Communities in Schools brigade during the 2014 MLK March. Photo courtesy of CIS Facebook page.
The Communities in Schools brigade during the 2014 MLK March. Photo courtesy of CIS Facebook page.

Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau is responsible for the 4,000 inmates in the Bexar County Adult Detention Center, downtown San Antonio’s invisible, often forgotten population. All face criminal charges of one sort or the other, but Pamerleau knows 40 percent of them have something else in common, too: They dropped out of school and failed to earn a high school diploma, a bad decision that often portends a lifetime of bad decisions.

“Some can’t read at all, and most don’t have a reading level beyond grade school,” Pamerleau told a ballroom of public education advocates at the annual Communities in Schools‘ “Keeping Kids in School Luncheon.”

CIS San Antonio serves more than 7,000 at-risk schools at 70 different Bexar County public school campuses. On-campus CIS caseworkers partner with school administrators, counselors and teachers to provide at-risk students with supplemental emotional support, academic enrichment, and an understanding of their individual potential. CIS counselors help give students the stability they need to function effectively in the classroom, and to comprehend the lifetime value of staying in school. CIS workers often function as surrogate parents for children who do not have a nuclear family, who might have lost a parent to prison or to violent crime.

Quote from a Communities in Schools site coordinator. Image courtesy of CIS' Facebook Page.
Quote from a Communities in Schools site coordinator. Image courtesy of CIS’ Facebook Page.

The CIS program is regarded as one of the most successful anti-dropout programs nationwide, but in Bexar County alone, the population of  at-risk students is estimated to be 200,000 students, far more than CIS can serve at its present resource level.

One third of the local CIS budget comes from the federal and state government, and one-third comes from school districts.

Private donors provide the other third, and Pamerleau didn’t hesitate to use her time on stage Tuesday to solicit contributions.

“As I close, I want to encourage everyone here to take out your checkbook and write a big check to Communities in Schools because it will be a smaller check today than the taxes you will pay for the cost of the criminal justice system in the future,” Pamerleau said.

Her talk was about more than fighting crime. For the CIS students and workers in the audience, and the program’s many supporters, Pamerleau herself is an example of what education opportunity, personal vision and tenacity, and talent can achieve. Over a 32-year career in the Air Force, Pamerleau rose to the rank of Major General.

The 1993 promotion list released with Pamerleau’s name was the first time the military listed more than one female for promotion in a single year. The numbers since then have slowly improved, but of the nearly 1,000 generals and admirals in the U.S. armed forces at the start of 2013, less than 70 were women. The numbers were probably even more pronounced when Pamerleau first earned her stars.

Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau address the crowd at the annual Communities in Schools' "Keeping Kids in School Luncheon." Courtesy photo.
Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau addresses the crowd at the annual Communities in Schools’ “Keeping Kids in School Luncheon.” Courtesy photo.

After retiring from active duty she served as a corporate executive at USAA. After an unsuccessful run a seat on Commissioners Court, Pamerleau ran for sheriff in 2012 and was swept into office by voters in both parties.

Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau
Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau

Pamerleau’s election put her back in uniform and public service as the first female sheriff in the history of Bexar County, so when Pamerleau talks about setting goals, reaching high and never quitting, it’s evident she isn’t just reading a speech. And while she’s a tough on crime Republican, she embraces the considerable body of data that links poor education outcomes with crime rates.

Her approach to managing the jail and public safety in the county have won praise from officeholders on both sides of the political aisle, including Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, who attended the CIS luncheon with his wife Tracy.

“If there is one thing which surprises me in my role as Sheriff it’s the sheer magnitude of social issues that touch the criminal justice system, although I probably shouldn’t have been surprised,” Pamerleau said. “It’s a proven fact when kids stay in school, crime rates go down … I’ll bet most of you want law enforcement to be tough on crime, and we are, but . . . wouldn’t it be more effective if we focused our efforts on trying to prevent young people from turning into criminals?”

Pamerleau said 60 percent of all juvenile crimes are committed on school days between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. “when those kids should be in school.”

Officials in Texas and other states make long-term decisions on prison construction not on the basis of current crime rates, she said, but on “the percentage of students achieving a third grade reading level in their schools,” meaning students who fall behind at a young age are an accurate predictor of future crime rates.

Pamerleau mentioned two programs that address the jail population’s low literacy rate and poor parenting skills. MATCH (Mothers and Their Children) and PATCH (Papas and Their Children) are time-proven parenting programs that reduce recidivism 15 percent among participating inmates. A second program with BiblioTech, the county’s much-lauded digital library, provides tablets to inmates participating in adult literacy programs that are loaded with children’s books. When children of inmates visit their incarcerated parent, that inmate can read them children’s stories.

Pamerleau said she is joining 5,000 other sheriffs, police chiefs, prosecutors and attorneys general in signing on with Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, an anti-crime program that aims to divert at-risk children from a life of crime before they start to commit criminal acts.

“Susan has the right attitude toward preventing crime and supporting initiatives like Communities in Schools,” Wolff said after her speech. Noting his own support for the program making BiblioTech resources available to jailed parents, he added, “It’s becoming more and more apparent that what we’re doing at the county is on the right track.”

Students from Thomas Edison High School thanks Communities in Schools. Photo courtesy of CIS' Facebook Page.
Students from Thomas Edison High School thanks Communities in Schools. Photo courtesy of CIS’ Facebook Page.

CIS San Antonio CEO Rufus Samkin told the audience that it takes $1,000 to fund a single student in CIS for one school year, and that every school day another 20 students drop out of Bexar County public schools.

He invited three CIS students and their in-school caseworkers to join him on stage after they appeared in testimonial videos that documented their turn-around from troubled, failing students on the path to dropping out to high achieving pupils with career ambitions. Alamo Colleges Chancellor Bruce Leslie joined Samkin on stage and surprised all three students with $1,000 scholarships.

Readers interested in becoming supporters of CIS San Antonio can become members for as little as $40 per year. Click here to read more.

*Featured/top image: The Communities in Schools brigade during the 2014 MLK March. Photo courtesy of CIS Facebook page.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.