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

AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN, February 10, 2008

 

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:

Windham Career Expo inside TDCJ's Terrell Unit brings employers, hiring support directly to offenders - Offenders gathered to hear from a variety of employees and professionals speaking about industry jobs and work opportunities for post- release offenders. With more than 160 students in attendance at five one-hour long sessions, there were many men eager to hear what visitors had to say. Ten volunteers and community leaders from five different companies came into this Texas Department of Criminal Justice facility in Rosharon, Texas, to talk directly to students about employment opportunities.

Annual Performance Report SY15 (014-2015)

This is an exciting time to be part of Windham School District (WSD)!

We invite you to be a part of what is happening to change lives for those wanting a second chance after a past of criminal activity. Every day, more people join our efforts to change the lives of those incarcerated in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “New teachers apply for jobs, volunteers sign up to devote time and some offer free short courses, businesses inquire about hiring students on release, and many charitable service and faith-based organizations ask to partner with WSD.” Many Texans are now interested in how they can become a part of our collective effort, making Windham’s goals part of their personal mission. We are hearing these people proudly state, “We are Windham,” expressing solidarity with our common mission to facilitate positive change.

Windham’s past performance is ranked as one of the highest in the nation among correctional educational programs, but we know we must continue to improve and challenge ourselves to deliver the best opportunities for offenders to be successful upon release back into Texas communities. Windham takes pride in past performance, but I hope you can also see our efforts to be responsive to needed changes. Our staff of highly qualified and dedicated people is rising to the challenges of educating the offender population in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. By improving educational content delivery, expanding vocational training opportunity for offenders, improving behavior and choice training for offenders, connecting with businesses who employ released offenders and continually working to improve efficiencies, Windham is providing a cost-effective intervention that helps protect all fellow Texans and lowers the cost of criminal activity to the State.

 

Current APR 2014 - 2015: 

 

Archived Reports: 

 

 

Letter from WSD: WSD explains program expansion - In our continuing series on the changes and improvements in the Windham School District (WSD) Vocational Trades and Career and Technical Education certifications, we would like to share WSD’s plan for program expansion. New course lengths, course offerings and training opportunities are becoming available for men and women in TDCJ.

'One day at a time' - W. Thomas sits on a bench outside the bus station on 12th Street, grinning as he enjoys his first cigarette in two years. Thomas served the past 24 months in a Texas prison for narcotics charges. It's Friday morning and Thomas is one of about 40 former inmates who just walked out of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Huntsville "Walls" Unit as free men after paying their debts to society. He's waiting for the Greyhound bus to show up to take him to his hometown of Houston where he intends to begin again.

New Reading Horizons curriculum to help develop fluency, comprehension - Literacy teachers from Windham School District are training in a new reading curriculum, Reading Horizons, to assist students develop reading fluency and comprehension. "This program was chosen by WSD after being peer reviewed by the UT Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk," said Amy Lopez, WSD Division of Instruction director.

Success Stories

Success Story IconNEW - Better future after prison - "It's mind-blowing and inspirational to know that you can have a better future after prison"

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."

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 IconNEW - I now have a good job - "My Windham teachers showed patience, effort, and kindness; they were very helpful"

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WSD in Images

Vocational and academic skills are integrated in Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs, such as this Small Engine Repair class in Huntsville, Texas.
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.
Auto specialization students in a West Texas prison learn auto maintenance skills, preparing themselves for future employment as professional mechanics.
An offender at the Polunsky Unit prepares for graduation after earning his GED through the Windham School District.
Offenders often experience academic success for the first time in a Windham classroom.
WSD’s Business and Image Management & Multimedia (BIMM) class offers students the opportunity to learn viable graphic arts and computer skills, helping them prepare for jobs after release.