Austin American-Statesman - Armed with GEDs®, inmates can triumph over their pasts



Austin American-Statesman Editor Rich Oppel recently served as a GED® graduation speaker at the Travis State Jail. He did a fantastic job as speaker, and he followed up with a very positive column about WSD and its GED® program.

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Armed with GEDs®, inmates can triumph over their pasts
Rich Oppel

On a recent morning, at the end of a long road that drops into an old pasture and emerges at a rectangle of high fences in far eastern Travis County, pride had to make way for pain in a locked and guarded room.

Two hours after I entered this emotional scene, I drove out, passing a kennel of baying bloodhounds, and questions lingered:

Why the pain? Is it properly distributed?

This was graduation day in the Windham School District. Never heard of Windham? That's because its schools are scattered within the walls and fences of units of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).

This particular branch was at the Travis State Jail, located at 8101 FM 969, which houses 1,100 inmates. The school is one of the 88 schools in the TDCJ.

Seated in folding chairs on one side of a large room were 36 men. Some wore blue gowns, others white prison uniforms. Most were between 18 and 35, though a couple of 43-year-old were mixed in.

Their faces were expressionless, eyes deflected in the protective human mask that is useful if you are a felon trying to survive behind bars.

On the other side of the room were 30 to 35 people -men, women and children. They were the fathers and mothers, wives and girlfriends, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters.

When asked if they had anything to say to the prisoners, emotions welled up among these families.

"To my graduate, Julien, my husband, I love you."

"Rowdy, my son, I love you. You make me very proud."

"People make mistakes. Just don't make the same mistake twice, William. We'll set up the business when you complete... your dues."

"We love you. We miss you. Keep up the good work."

"Delton, I hope this is a right step in a positive direction."

"Donald, God has a plan for you. Everyone makes a mistake. Let God lead you."

Among the inmate across from them, eyes reddened, head swiveled, a nervous wave was proffered, sullen faces turned to smiles and finally, eyes met eyes.

There was good reason for pride. Thirteen of the prisoners had earned their General Educational Development (GED®) certificates.

Another 11 had completed courses in business computer information systems, and three had earned certificates in landscape design and construction maintenance.

I felt pain, too, in seeing what these young men had done to their families, and wondered why it was necessary, because you could see these guys working at the local hardware store, hotel, hospital or business office.

Perhaps that is where we will see them next, because their commintment to earning a certificate and learning work skills gives them a good chance of staying out of prison.

The average Windham student never attained a high school diploma, functions at a 6th grade level, has an IQ of 85, and is 34 years old.

Among the 1,100 here at the Travis State Jail, you sense that these 36 are made of the right stuff.

"Congratulations, for putting up with all of the negativity of the dorms," said Ashley Anderson, the building captain, noting that they had borne ridicule by other inmates to seek an education and have a vision for the future while others sat on the edge of their bunks.

As I've written before, I have a GED®, too. That's why I was here. I never served time, but I know that these guys aren't that much different than I was at age of 18. They may have pulled a stick-up or beat up somebody. They got what they deserved, though their families didn't deserve this.

But everybody needs a hand up, and now these guys in blue and white were getting that help.

Help from the warden, Corey Ginsel, and the school principal, Sandy Haak, and teachers like those who showed up for the graduation on their day off -Joe Castillo, Richard Coppedge, Suzanna Grant and Terrence Smith.

And most of all, they were getting help from the families on the other side of the room, the people who shared the pain and still love them.


Other articles that may interest you:

WSD receives support from NCCER with efforts to connect trained offenders and employers - Windham School District vocational training programs are certified by the nationally-recognized National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) Industrial Certification Verification program. This program is widely recognized in industry as a leading certification endorsement for the construction and manufacturing trades. 

Livingston graduation ceremony: Rep. James White joins WSD in marking success - Two special guests celebrated academic achievement during a recent WSD graduation ceremony at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas. Representative James White was in attendance to offer personal congratulations and present each graduate with a certificate of achievement.

Former offender Granados gives hope to current students through WSD job expo - "I have been out [of prison] for five years, and it has been a very emotional day for me, coming back into a prison environment: the sights, the smells and the tattoos; it has definitely been a trip," J. Granados tells offenders while visiting the Torres Unit in Hondo, Texas. Granados has returned to prison to speak to current offenders, and he is intent on motivating others to succeed — and change. 

Why I Teach for Windham: Brent Frailicks - A new recruitment video entitled "Why I Teach for Windham: Brent Frailicks" is now available on YouTube. Cognitive Intervention teacher Frailicks at the Moore Unit explains why he chooses to be a correctional educator, and his response is an affirmation of the valuable work done by all WSD teachers.

Message to WSD employees:
State Employee Charitable Campaign (SECC) 2017: NOW – Oct. 31!

Together We Can! - secctexas.orgOnce again Windham School District is privileged to support the State Employee Charitable Campaign (SECC), allowing employees to make donations to eligible charities of their choice. Employees at every campus have the option to participate, and WSD is proud of the legacy employees promote through caring for others.

The Windham School District raised $22,314 statewide last year for SECC, topping the 2015 total of $20, 470.
This year's WSD goal is $24,800!

If you are on a unit, you will need to turn in your SECC contribution, cash or payroll deduction (the easiest way!) ASAP to the school office or WSD designee. Donations will then be sent to Dina Valenta in the WSD Administration Business Office and become part of the WSD campaign total. Charity choices and codes are found in the SECC booklets at each school site or go to Forms should also be available at your work site.

SECC Silent Auction winner Marlise Golden celebrates her winnings and the opportunity to help others in need.

SECC Silent Auction winner Marlise Golden celebrates her winnings and the opportunity to help others in need.

If you are in the WSD administration offices, please visit the Superintendent's Office to make your gift to the charity or charities of your choice! Donations may be made with checks, cash or payroll deduction (the easiest way!). In addition, WSD Administration's Annual SECC Silent Auction is scheduled for Oct. 5 in Huntsville (10 a.m. – 2 p.m. ) All employees and WSD friends are welcome to participate, and the auction features hundreds of items in a wide variety of values. Unit and school fundraisers may also involve silent auctions, bake sales, food sales and other events. Everyone is encouraged to also enjoy participating in SECC events held by TDCJ and other agencies.

For the third year, WSD fundraising for SECC will include the sale of official WSD shirts and jackets to school district employees. New items will be hoodies and unit vests/aprons. Proceeds will go to designated SECC charities. More details regarding shirt orders and will be emailed to employees in mid-September.

How do WSD employees help us meet the overall WSD fundraising goal?

  1. Make a cash, check or payroll deduction donation at your job site.
  2. Order a new WSD shirt or hoodie (profits to SECC!) –or a few! – Details to be announced soon!
  3. Participate in WSD fund-raising activities at your site for SECC.
  4. Enjoy the privilege of helping others in need!

SECC Silent Auction bidder Melinda Cobb bids on special items while supporting her favorite charities.

SECC Silent Auction bidder Melinda Cobb bids on special items while supporting her favorite charities.

Unit employees should be sure their donations are sent to Dina Valenta in the WSD Business Office in Huntsville, preferably as a campus group.
Do not use truck mail. Please hand deliver or use U.S. Post Office (campus donations need to be sent through the registered mail with tracking number; do not send cash through the regular or truck mail).

Your participation and donations are appreciated! Please join us in helping make a difference in many lives!