A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Kentucky Teacher: Russell Independent school’s KRUSH program helps erase stigma of Incarceration


By Jacob Perkins
Kentucky Teacher

Kids Rising Up through Support and Healing (KRUSH) has cultivated a sense of family for students that have seen their own families affected by the harsh reality of incarceration. A reality that has become far too common in the Commonwealth.

According to data accumulated by The Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that focuses on child welfare, 15% of Kentucky children – a total of 145,000 children – in 2015-2016 had at some point in their lives had a parent or guardian incarcerated.

Kristi Whittaker, left, and Jalina Wheeler stand in front of a sign for the Kids Rising Up through Support and Healing (KRUSH) program. KRUSH is a weekly support group for students that are coping with family members or guardians that are or have been incarcerated. (Photo by Jacob Perkins)

Kentucky ranks second nationally, only behind Arkansas, when looking at the percentage of children under 18 who have had to deal with parental incarceration. Due to this alarming rate, students from all over the state may be unaware that their classmate sitting right next to them could be going through a similar situation.

Shared experiences between Russell-McDowell Intermediate School (Russell Independent) Special Education Assistant Kristi Whittaker and Counselor Jalina Wheeler helped in creating the KRUSH program. KRUSH is a weekly support group for students that are coping with family members or guardians that are or have been incarcerated.

“Several years ago, I had a family member that was facing some issues with incarceration,” Whittaker said. “I felt like I wanted to do something to help the parents, but throughout the course of (the planning), I decided that since I’m already in a school system, I needed to focus on the kids of the people that are incarcerated.”

Wheeler said that she relates to what these students are going through because she was once in their shoes.

“I have an immediate family member that has been incarcerated and I grew up as a child of a parent that was incarcerated,” Wheeler said. “That was something … I kind of hid; it was kind of a stigma. I thought it would affect me having a job … and that’s how our kids feel.”

That stigma is something that Wheeler and Whittaker work to erase in the weekly meetings at Russell-McDowell.

“We have these kids coming in here, their heads are down and they’re embarrassed by their situation,” Wheeler said. “The kids share positive and negatives every week and we let them open up when they’re ready.”

Both Wheeler and Whittaker said they have seen the benefits of the KRUSH program in the students.

“One thing that we noted that a lot of our kids have attendance issues, behavior issues, write-ups, anger, they’re all going through these different things,” Wheeler said. “We’re still collecting data, but we’re seeing attendance is better, behavior is better, there are less write-ups, grades are better and teachers are all about sending them because they’re seeing a difference in the kids as well.”

Students in the Kids Rising Up through Support and Healing (KRUSH) program at Russell-McDowell Intermediate School (Russell Independent) wrote one word to describe the KRUSH program. Responses include “Fun!!!” “Helpful” and “Family.” (Photo by Jacob Perkins)

Sean Horne, superintendent of Russell Independent Schools, believes that the KRUSH program may help lower the number of students that fall into the Novice level by building a stronger relationship between the faculty and students.

“The KRUSH program, in particularly, focuses on relationships,” Horne said. “If the kids have an adult mentor or liaison that they can come and talk to, that definitely helps by giving them a reason to get up and come to school.”

Wheeler and Whittaker understand that during summer break, students may not have the outlet to express themselves like they do with the KRUSH program. That’s why, through a grant it received from Russell Independent Schools, KRUSH will have a free summer camp for its Russell students. They hope that where the program goes, the summer camp will go as well.

Horne said, like academics, students can regress over summer when it comes to their emotional support.

“By having a summer program, the students can continue to have contact with the school. They can continue to have contact with the counselor,” Horne said. “This kind of keeps things rolling. When school starts next year, we’re not starting back at square one.”

On the KRUSH website there are training materials and information about the KRUSH program. So far Wheeler and Whittaker have conducted KRUSH trainings for every school in the district. All of these schools have implemented the program for their students.

Ashland’s schools have also been trained and plan to begin the program next school year. Greenup County will be trained soon with the hopes of bringing KRUSH to its district.

“We’ve seen the impact of it (the program), and we know other districts have even more of a population than we do and the reality is, this (incarceration) is everywhere,” Wheeler said. “If we can help one child to make a better decision in their life, and to really heal, that’s what our goal is at this point.”

This story first appeared in Kentucky Teacher, a publication of the Kentucky Department of Education.


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