Charter schools for inmates
Oh, heck, why not?
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Albert Aragon dreams of working in real estate one day, but the 29-year-old jail inmate is a high school dropout who believes employers don't hire people with general equivalency diplomas.
Now he has a chance to get his high school diploma, thanks to a new Albuquerque charter school, one of a handful of charter schools nationwide serving current and former jail inmates.
"When they see a high school diploma, they see that you stuck in through the thick and thin, through the tough times, and when you're out getting jobs, they don't want GEDs, they want diplomas," he said during a break in his language arts class.
The Gordon Bernell Charter School at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center in Albuquerque and the Five Keys Charter School in San Francisco have turned their state laws on charter schools into opportunities to grant high school diplomas — rather than GEDs — to jail inmates regardless of their age.
Wearing orange jumpsuits, students at the Albuquerque jail attend high school math and language classes and science labs in secure rooms next to their pod, which is segregated from the rest of the inmate population. Students are given homework to complete in their cells at night.
San Francisco County Sheriff Michael Hennessey, who helped start Five Keys Charter School in 2003, said it wasn't easy to get the school board to approve a charter school for inmates.
"After they got over the kind of shock of sanctioning a high school inside of a jail, they said they would be happy to support it," he said.
The school board eventually gave Five Keys unanimous support when its charter was approved in 2002.
"A lot of public school advocates believe that the charter schools are taking away the students from wealthier families, are creaming off the better students, and as a result it is diminishing the effectiveness of the public school movement," Hennessey said. "I'm certainly not taking the better advantaged students."
In Albuquerque, classes are fast-paced and allow students to earn high school credit as quickly as they can master each curriculum standard. But they must score 80 percent or better to get credit.
Language arts teacher Kimberlee Hanson wrapped up a recent class with a head-spinning list of upcoming tasks.
"Tomorrow we're typing stories. Write your stories. Your literary analysis is sticking with you. Monday's our final that ends this unit and then it's off to superheroes for persuasive essays," she told her students.
In addition to a basic high school curriculum, both charter schools teach their inmate-students life skills designed to help them be better citizens.
Psychologist Ron Gallegos works with inmates on how to make better choices by teaching them about morality.
In one assignment, the students had to document 10 hours of doing things for other people while not expecting anything in return, which is the antithesis of prison society, he said.
Gallegos said the school helps give inmates a sense of achievement.
"I think they are stunned to discover that they have some ability to be successful in the academic world," he said. "You see a pretty overwhelming sense of joy and pride in them when they accomplish writing an essay or solving a math problem or getting a science project."
Teachers at Gordon Bernell agree that student discipline is the least of their problems. The school has a zero-tolerance policy about drugs, violence and gangs.
When inmates are released, they can continue at the school's downtown campus, said Gordon Bernell's director, Greta Roskom.
Though charter school laws differ by state, Hennessey said the California education secretary and several communities around the state have expressed interest in replicating Five Keys Charter School. Roskom said New Mexico's charter school has attracted the attention of national correctional educators.
First, this gives the inmates another reason to behave, since it seems that they are not allowed to attend if they are behavior problems.
Second, it gives them something intellectual to do while they are in jail-- like seriously addressing what got them in jail in the first place. That's a great idea.
Third, education gives people opportunities and choices. Hopefully, this will reinforce to the inmates that they have choices-- and they had them before they got into jail, too.
It would be interesting to see what the long-term record of inmates who successfully complete this program, if this cuts the recidivism rates versus a control group.