For as long as she can remember, community has always been the drive behind Professor Tonya Walls’s desire to teach.
A native of Oakland, Calif., Walls came to Southern Nevada more than a decade ago to teach in the Clark County School District (CCSD). Since 2015, she has continued her journey to help make communities stronger as an Assistant Professor in the Touro University Nevada School of Education.
At the beginning of the 2016-17 school year, Walls partnered with Touro adjunct professor Erica Reid and Peterson Academic Safe School Specialist Kasina Boone to develop a program to help end the school-to-prison pipeline for African-American girls in Clark County. The partnership also includes the non-profit organization Teaching and Uniting Ladies to Inspire Success (TULIPS), which was founded by Boone.
The program, called “Code Switch,” runs in six-week cycles for African-American girls attending Peterson Academic Center, an alternative school for students who have been transitioned out of comprehensive secondary schools in CCSD for disciplinary reasons.
“Part of the problem with the school-to-prison pipeline is that we render our children ‘bad’ and we criminalize them,” Walls said. “These girls made bad choices; they’re not bad people.”
The school-to-prison pipeline is a national problem, Walls added. The “Code Switch” program is a big step in trying end that problem.
Faculty from the School of Education help facilitate the curriculum for the weekly sessions the girls attend as part of the program. The curriculum has a myriad of focuses to assist those middle school and high school girls in “Code Switch,” including leadership development, self-empowerment, identity work and more.
“The focus of the program is to help them tap into the power they have to make better choices about their behavior,” Walls said. “We’re there to provide the support.”
Once the girls complete their six weeks of curriculum-based learning as provided by Touro faculty, they are placed in a mentorship program with TULIPS. Under the guidance of professional women, the girls are mentored in leadership qualities while being provided with a much-needed support system.
Becoming engaged in both the classroom and community settings is an essential focus of “Code Switch” as the girls transition back into CCSD with a newfound sense of pride and understanding.
“Communities of color tend to be more relational, which is why this is such a holistic program,” Walls said.
While “Code Switch” isn’t an official part of the School of Education’s curriculum, Walls is hopeful that more CCSD teachers will participate to help the girls who are most in need of guidance.
She’s also hoping it will eventually end the mindset of ‘leave your community to better yourself.’
“As a society, we have a tendency to tell students who come from challenging environments that they need to get out of their communities. I tend to push back on that narrative,” she said. “We shouldn’t get out; we should come back and give the gifts we’ve developed to help lift as we climb. We’re only as strong as our weakest link. If everybody leaves, who’s left?”
In addition to her co-founding of “Code Switch,” Walls was named an “Emerging Scholar” by the National Association for Multicultural Education (NAME) for her hard work and research. For the next year, she’ll work alongside colleagues and attend conferences focused on research that aims to improve communities across the country.
“I’m so excited to have the opportunity to work with those who I’ve been studying for so long…my nerd rock stars as I call them,” Walls said. “My research has always been centered in community, and this will give me a platform to elevate the voices of marginalized people who don’t get the opportunity to share their stories. I am a product of a community like many of the girls I work with. I am who I am because of my community.”