New Mexico: Charter schools help jail inmates graduate
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Fri Jan 2 19:41:58 UTC 2009
Charter schools help jail inmates graduate
By HEATHER CLARK – 1 day ago
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — 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
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.
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