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Monday, Aug. 29, 2016

Inmates put time to good use

Sunday, November 10, 2002

Academic Teacher III Anna Kinsolving helps an offender-student with an assignment.
CHARLESTON -- Since May, the sentence "Let learning take you around the world" has become a daily motto for the mere 450-500 offender-students attending the Southeast Correctional Center's Adult Basic Education program.

Surrounding the motto on a wall at SECC's Education Department are the names of eight general education development (GED) certificate graduates written on paper "mini earths." The eventual goal is to completely fill the wall with all of the names of offender-students who pass the GED.

"Most of the offenders' problems began at school-age, when they were in school making poor choices. And now we're bringing them back into the school setting. They're building bridges and breaking down barriers," said SECC Education Director Jason Lewis.

It's required by state law for offenders who do not have a high school diploma or GED to attend the school. Offender-students' ages range from 18 to 65.

"We have offender-students from nonreaders to graduating high school seniors. We might have a 50-year-old who can't read and a 27-year-old who's about to get his GED. We just have a range of people," Lewis said.

The only way offenders can be exempt from attending the school if they do not have a high school diploma or GED, is if they are serving a captial punishment life sentence without parole or age 65 or older.

"It's about the same size of a real high school," Lewis said. "It's much like public school. Everyone learns and is treated the same, regardless of why they're in here."

Despite the obvious differences, several similarities exist between public school and incarcerated school. For starters, all of the school's teachers are state certified. Each of the 10 classrooms are equipped with a chalkboard, wooden teacher's desk, tables, computers without Internet, etc. There's even report cards and hall passes, preapproved, of course.

Quarterly report cards are administered so students can monitor their progress. Issues included in the report are attendance, behavior and academic integrity. Offender-students meet one-on-one with their teachers to discuss any problems that may exist, Lewis explained.

Another similarity is the structured grade levels. Classrooms are arranged in four levels: fourth grade, which is for nonreaders; fourth through sixth grades; seventh through ninth grades; and 10th through 12th grades.

By structuring the grade levels, teachers can better prepare their lesson plans and it makes a more comfortable setting and learning environment for the student-offenders, Lewis explained.

"The grade leveling ensures offender-students can see their success as they climb the ladder," Lewis said.

Adult Basic Education is a service to the offender population, but it's also a service to the community. "This service embodies the DOC support and dedication to the rehabilitation of offenders and the returning of the offenders to the community educationally prepared. This dedication helps ensure public safety and helps ensure that the incarcerated individuals return to the community as better citizens," Lewis said.

Lewis said the service's success is solely dependent on the dedication of the individual efforts by the staff and offenders.

School helps the offenders focus on positive, better behavior and on being better citizens, Lewis added. And these educational services don't cost the taxpayer any money, he said.

"The reality is that the upper 90-percent of offenders are returning to the community. With this service, they can return with education and with job and employment skills. They can get better paying jobs and become better citizens."

From Monday through Thursday, school occurs in three sessions: the morning session, which begins at 7:30 a.m., the noon session, and the mid-day session at 3 p.m. Each session lasts three hours.

Approximately 80 percent of SECC offender-students who take the GED test pass, Lewis said. This is also the same percentage of offender-students who pass the test statewide. Eight SECC offender-students have passed the GED since it began, he said.

A good-faith effort, which means offender-students are actively pursuing their GED, can make a difference in an offender's time served.

"The Probation and Parole Board are really behind education and looking at an offender's good faith effort and progress in school, can affect an offender's parole date," Lewis said.

Lewis also said his staff members are some of the best in the state. They're a dedicated and qualified staff, he said. Aside from having their teacher's certification, they have all been trained by the Missouri Department of Corrections, too.

Class ratios average 15 students to one teacher, Lewis said. In a given day teachers see between 45-60 students. They work from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and might have an hour's worth of prep. Unlike public school teachers, SECC's teachers can't take home papers to grade due to confidentially, he explained.

"We hope the offenders really appreciate how incredible this facility is, and we hope to keep it that way," Lewis noted. "We also hope offenders and their families realize what an opportunity it is for them."