Windham School District’s 2015 graduates grateful for a second chance in education

Huntsville Item - www.itemonline.com 
Posted: Saturday, February 28, 2015 10:44 pm
By Winston Spencer Jr / Staff Reporter 

 

hitem graduation feb2015 4For many people, education seems so common it may be taken for granted. For the 2015 graduates of the Windham School District, the overwhelming sentiment regarding education is one of thankfulness and pure gratitude.

Windham schools offer an opportunity for offenders to change their lives by earning their General Equivalency Degrees, or GEDs, while paying their debts to society.

On Saturday morning, 39 inmates gladly stepped forward into a life of greater opportunity through the privilege of education. Held in the Estelle Unit’s Chapel, the graduation ceremony took on a church-like atmosphere.

After a welcome by Estelle principal Jennifer Graves, valedictorian Tracy Bryant gave the invocation.

“We thank God for his blessing of education and pray for his guidance, for his glory and honor. Amen,” Bryant said.

The Estelle Heavenly Choir stirred the audience with gospel songs of endurance and victory — two commodities coveted greatly by the proud graduates.

State Rep. James White Speaks During the Windham School District Fraduation Ceremony: State Rep. James White (R-District 19; Tyler, Polk, Newton, Jasper and Hardin counties) speaks during the Windham School District graduation ceremony on Saturday (February 28, 2015) morning at the Estelle Unit. White gave a rousing speech admonishing the family and friends of the inmates for never giving up during their incarcerations. By Joshua Yates / PhotographerState Rep. James White (R-District 19) then spoke on the importance of TDCJ’s mission.

“We don’t often hear this but we have a ministry in government and part of that is realized through our Windham Schools,” White said. “I see many of our correction officers that ask me never to cut the chapel and education because it builds the heart and mind to be rehabilitated.

“People ask me all the time what are we doing to rehab or uplift. The reason why we are here is because of the people on the left (the civilians in attendance). Today is a big win for all the families present, and for society,” White continued. “We give up on people too easily. Even though these men are inmates, they are still Texans and will one day re-enter society. They have some education now. They have faith. Now they need the support of family and society.”

White talked about how he excelled in school at all levels.

"But I’ve never at any level done what Tracy Bryant has done and that is to finish at the top of his class," White added.

Bryant, the valedictorian of the 2015 class, listened to every word of Saturday’s graduation ceremony. He said he’s grateful to those who helped him achieve academic success for the first time in his life.

"I just quit school in the eighth grade because I thought I knew it all," Bryant said. "Now I see that was one of the worst mistakes of my life. Now I just soak up all I can get my hands on."

As every inmate’s name was called, each stood up, adjusted their clothes and proudly walked up to receive their diplomas. Their heads were high and they were sporting new self-esteem.

"I feel good," Joe Martinez said after receiving his diploma. "I’ve been in administrative segregation (solitary confinement) for 19 years. Today I see how things are different for me. I can see one door that’s opened already — the one that let me out of ad-seg."

Surrounded by friends and family, Estelle Unit inmate Joseph Ceasar happily shares a piece of cake with his niece Italy after receiving his GED diploma during the Windham School District’s graduation ceremony on Saturday morning. About 40 inmates proudly crossed the stage to get their diplomas after putting in hours of work in the classroom. By Joshua Yates / PhotographerJoseph Ceasar, 21, Saturday’s youngest graduate, understands the privilege of his education.

"I developed a brain tumor that pressed against my optic nerve causing me to become blind," Ceasar said. "But it’s funny, because I think I see the world differently now. I got here because of bad choices and being at the wrong place at the wrong time. I learned something here and that’s redemption. I have a better chance at that now."

Juan Bravo, 59, the oldest graduate, now knows the education process never stops.

"I’m taking trade courses on top of earning my GED," Bravo said. "I’m learning to repair the computer systems in cars. This will help me to be something I never was before in my life — productive."

Terry Murray, one of Bryant’s instructors, took special note of her top student’s commitment.

"He was in class every day and was perhaps the hardest worker. He listens and is so humble. When he gets out, he’s going to be one of the ones who make it," Murray said. "I pushed him. I mean I pushed him hard. All of his scores were high, but he was the only one to make a perfect score in two of the five test areas and he got a 700 out of a possible 800 total score on his GED test."

Members of the Estelle Heavenly Choir Sing Together at Saturday's Graduation Service: Members of the Estelle Heavenly Choir clap and harmonize during a rendition of "Stand by Me" during the Windham School District graduation ceremony on Saturday (February 28th, 2015) morning. By Joshua Yates / PhotographerBryant said he’s a changed man thanks to what he’s learned from teachers like Murray.

"Before I came here I wasted a lot of time," he said. "When I finally decided to get educated, I wanted to use every opportunity to better myself before I get out. Once you come to prison, you need to start working on a plan for when you get out, before you get out. Even in here, there are opportunities."

"A lot of people will look at this and say it’s only a GED (graduation equivalence diploma)," said Larry Cheneau, another proud 2015 graduate. "But it shouldn’t take a GED to figure out that this is progress. When you progress, you profit. And it doesn’t take a GED to know you will never go broke making a profit."

 

 

Success Stories

Success Story IconEducation changed my life -
"These opportunities [GED classes or learning a trade] are great, but WSD is so much more than that; for me it was a change of life."

Success Story IconNEW - I can now make a living. I’m free - "The welding program helped me build character. Mr. Perry taught me how to talk like a welder..."

Success Story IconGED Success Story -
"My son received his GED through Windham School District. I just wanted to 'Thank You' for this program."

Success Story IconTo a WSD welding teacher from a former offender student -
"I got a job welding and I had to write and just thank you so much for putting me ahead of the game."

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WSD in Images

Students at the Huntsville “Walls” Unit strengthen writing skills during a literacy class.
Auto specialization students in a West Texas prison learn auto maintenance skills, preparing themselves for future employment as professional mechanics.
Texas State Board of Education Chair Barbara Cargill congratulates GED recipients during Spring, 2014, ceremonies. “I am very impressed with the program and with the commitment of the staff and teachers,” she said.
Offenders often experience academic success for the first time in a Windham classroom.
An offender at the Polunsky Unit prepares for graduation after earning his GED through the Windham School District.
Each day WSD correctional educators pass through prison gates across Texas to work with men and women incarcerated within TDCJ.