TDCJ's Windham School District gives inmates a shot at academic success
Offenders and their families feel a sense of accomplishment on graduation day
By Cody Stark
THE HUNTSVILLE ITEM
March 8, 2014
HUNTSVILLE-When inmates enter the Texas Department of Criminal Justice system, they often have a history of academic failure, low self-esteem and function at a sixth-grade learning level.
Windham School District offers offenders the opportunity to turn things around and develop skills to help them once they are released from prison.
Last weekend, a graduation ceremony was held for 26 inmates who earned their General Educational Development, or GED, diplomas while serving their sentences in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Estelle, Ellis and Eastham units in Walker County.
Barbara Cargill, chair of the State Board of Education, was the guest speaker at the Estelle Unit last weekend. The offenders' families were invited to the graduation ceremony.
"We have a lot of very proud parents and grandparents that attend the graduation because for a lot of these fellows, this is the first time they have ever accomplished anything," said Frieda Spiller, who has been the Windham principal at the Estelle Unit since September.
"With them being in prison, there is a negative light cast on them and this is something positive that not only can they brag about, but their families can as well."
When inmates enter TDCJ they are tested to determine their academic level. They are placed in Windham programs based on an Individualized Treatment Plan, which outlines educational services for the offender, based on age, program availability, projected release date and need for academic, vocational and life skills programs.
"We have a lot of offenders who come into the system who are almost illiterate-emergent readers-and we put them through a series of literacy classes," Spiller said. "Our literacy classes are leveled out based on their academic abilities and they work their way through those classes until they obtain their GED."
Inmates are taught reading, math, science, social studies and language, which includes writing, to prepare for the GED test. They go to class for three hours and 15 minutes a day and follow a curriculum.
"The teachers get reports on weaknesses and strengths on each offender in their class," said Gary Clark, who has worked for Windham for 25 years and has been the principal at the Ellis and Estelle units for close to two years. "It is like a regular classroom where the teacher can break the offenders into groups to focus on the areas they struggle with."
Windham currently provides educational services at 88 prison facilities across the state. Aside from the literacy programs, inmates also have to opportunity to take classes in 34 vocational trade areas.
"They have to qualify to take vocational classes and usually their reading level has to be around fifth and seventh grade," Clark said. "Seventh grade is what we recommend but a principal can make a decision on a certain unit that a guy has been working hard, has a fifth-grade reading level but can be put in a bricklaying class or another class.
"A student who does not have a GED can take a vocational class, but they have to be concurrently enrolled in academics. We are going to get you the GED and the vocational skills to help you in the free world."
Clark said that sometimes there are offenders who are reluctant to go to class when they first get to prison. As they begin to climb through the academic levels and improve their education, things begin to change.
"They suddenly realize that their reading is getting better and they can write letters home," Clark said. "They begin to love math because they see it as a game. When at first they didn't want to come to class and didn't want to speak, they start showing up and talking more."
For a lot of the inmates, Windham allows them to achieve academic success for the first time in their lives. But the educators who help them reach those goals also take pride in their accomplishments.
"What we do is very rewarding because not only do you see the students grow academically, but you see a growth in their social behavior and how they communicate with other people," Spiller said.
"You know you did something that is going to positively affect their lives. You have equipped them with skills that will help them go out and get employment that will help them provide for their families, so the impact doesn't stop with the student."
Reprinted with permission of The Huntsville ITEM
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